State of ‘Lay’

As Robert Frost might have put it, something there is that doesn’t want to say lie. I refer to the present tense of the verb meaning to assume or be in a recumbent position, figuratively or literally. So: I want to lay down. He had to lay low. Don’t just lay there. And so on. I have weighed in on the topic before, as have my Lingua Franca colleagues Anne Curzan and Geoffrey Pullum. But I feel that a tipping point has been reached.

This Google Ngram Viewer shows that in American books (the sub-database I was searching), lay began its ascent in about 1980 and the point tipped in 2003.  (Note that the earlier lay lows tend to occur in now-archaic idioms, as in “to lay low the haughtiness of the terrible”— Isaiah xiii. 11.)

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As for spoken uses, my general sense is that lay is universally favored among my students, in song lyrics (from “Lay Lady Lay” on down), and by pretty much everyone who isn’t an amateur or professional stickler. Statistical proof is hard to come by, since speech is charted so much less than text, but in the “Spoken” database of Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (1990-2015) — an admittedly small sample — lay there has double the hits of lie there.

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In the brand-new fourth edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan Garner assigns lay low and lay down to Stage 4 of his Language-Change Index — the stage at which “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots).”

Lay-in-place-of-lie has a long and deep history in the American vernacular, especially in the lay low form. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a line from The Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of Tennessee (1833), ostensibly written by Davy himself: “I determined to obey one of our backwoods sayings: ‘Lay low and keep dark, stranger.’”  The usage is all over Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, e.g., “His hat was laying on the floor — an old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid.” The refrain of the folk song “Jimmy Randall,” collected in Missouri in 1941, ends with “‘Cause I’m sick to the heart, I want to lay down.” (The song is an adaptation of the Scottish ballad “Lord Randall,” which has it, ‘For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.’”)

In Henry James’s 1904 short story “Fordham Castle,” middle-class American Mrs. Magaw, who has been squirrelled  away at a Swiss hotel by her social-climbing daughter, Mattie, is talking to Abel Taker, who, though more cultivated and refined, has been put in much the same position by his wife. James not only mocks her for her use of lay low, he has her misunderstand Taker when he uses the correct form:

“She wants me to lay low. If I lay low, she says — ”

“Oh, I know what she says” — Abel took it straight up. “It’s the very same as what Mrs. Taker says. If you lie low she can fly high.”

It kept disconcerting her, in a manner, as well as steadying, his free possession of their case. “I don’t feel as if I was lying — I mean as low as she wants — when I talk to you so.”

Mrs. Magaw adds, “She doesn’t so much mind their seeing me — when once she has had a look at me first. But she doesn’t like them to hear me though I don’t talk so very much. Mattie speaks in the real English style.” (Not to correct The Master, but the real Magaw probably would have said them as the sixth word of the quote.)

So why the arrival, persistence, and now triumph of lay in the American vernacular? That’s a bit beyond my pay grade, but I’ll mention a couple of factors. The first, as Pullum describes well, is the confusion among three separate verbs — the lie we’ve been discussing, to lie meaning to knowingly say something false, and to lay, meaning to set something down. Some of the lay “mistakes” are merely an elision of the direct object — for example, “I lay [myself] down.” In addition, lay is marginally easier to say than lie — you don’t have to open your mouth as wide — and thus seems stronger, in the manner of disinterested overtaking uninterested, and shrunk overtaking shrank as the past tense of shrink. Linguistically, we Yanks seem to like minimal effort for maximum impact.

In any case, lay now rules the vernacular road. Just the other week on The Good Wife, a character sang a kids’ song: “Make me warm and toasty while I lay here nice and cozy.” The word choice was inevitable. Lie would have sounded, as Garner might say, snooty.

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