Lain, the Whom of the Verb World


The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

I first need to summarize certain facts about three verbs in Standard English. I follow The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language in using bold italics for the name of a verb dictionary entry (a verb lexeme, as linguists say) and italics for the different forms it has.

Dictionaries of English distinguish the following three verb lexemes:

lie1   regular intransitive “tell untruths”
lie2   irregular intransitive “be or become recumbent”
lay   irregular transitive “set down on a surface”


Here are the crucial inflectional forms (I omit the predictable ones):


    lie1 lie2 lay
PRETERITE (SIMPLE PAST):     lied lay laid
PAST PARTICIPLE:     lied lain laid


The confusion does not relate to lie1: Nobody seems to make mistakes like saying *I have never lain about my age (confusing lie1 with lie2). What people have trouble with is the contrast between lie2 and lay. They are not just phonologically similar (a lateral consonant followed by a diphthong), but semantically related. Lay is the causative of lie2: Laying a rug on the floor means causing the rug to lie on the floor. And the forms of the two verbs are tangled in a web of partial similarities as if in a deliberate effort to befuddle users:

  • The preterite of lie2 is identical with the default present form of lay (it’s not lied, as you might have expected from looking at the regular verb lie1).
  • The past participle of lie2 is the orthographically and phonologically irregular form lain, while lay has the orthographically irregular but phonologically regular form laid (which isn’t spelled layed, though logically it should have been).

This almost malignly confusing pair of paradigms tempted the Guardian subeditor into a blunder. Lain is wrong. Those skeletons had lain under that supermarket for centuries because they were carefully laid there by the living.

But do not mock the poor subhead writer at The Guardian; people constantly get the forms of these verbs mixed up. Lain it down is wrong but gets thousands of Google hits. Lie it on the floor, which I found on a web page about indoor marijuana cultivation, is incorrect, though lay it on the floor, on a web page about yoga, is correct. Lay on the floor, in a web page about spine exercise, is incorrect; lie on the floor, on a web page about abdominal exercise, is correct; and laying reindeer, at Crate & Barrel on the label for a small driftwood sculpture of a recumbent caribou, is incorrect (thanks to linguist Joan Maling for the latter).

And don’t try to learn your Standard English from popular songs. Bob Dylan’s Lay, lady, lay is incorrect (he wanted her to lie across that big brass bed), but the same songwriter’s Lay down your weary tune is correct.

Woody Guthrie’s Lay down, little doggies was incorrect, but Mississippi Fred McDowell’s When I Lay My Burden Down was correct.

Kris Kristofferson’s song “Help me make it through the night” has both Come and lay down by my side, which is incorrect, and Lay it soft against my skin, where lay is correct.

And Paul Simon’s line “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down”? Don’t ask. (It’s grammatical, but archaic; me is semantically equivalent to the reflexive pronoun myself, so lay me down is a correct use of the transitive lay expressing the meaning of the intransitive lie down. I did tell you not to ask.)

The situation is not just slightly tricky; it is positively unfair. It makes you want to lay down with a damp cloth over your eyes. (No, that’s incorrect; I should have said lie down.)

My remarks about correctness and incorrectness here are not intended prescriptively: I’m not trying to bully you into saying things my way. I take it to be a straightforward empirical fact about Standard English that the irregular verbs lie2 and lay have the inflectional forms I gave in the table above. But it’s also a fact that there is a huge incidence of both dialect variations and sporadic errors. Just as with the who / whom distinction, users famously do not always get it right.

But judge not lest you be judged. And never be surprised that people get simple things wrong in their own language. Look at the irregularity of the system: The wonder is that anybody ever gets any of it right. That’s what you should be surprised at.


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