I tell a lie, or is that a lay?

When you’re writing, one of your duties as a writer is to make your story easy to read, so that your thoughts and feelings travel to the reader’s mind hopefully unscathed, and with ease. No matter how long you live, or how much you write, you will never stop sucking at this – you will just suck at a higher and higher level until at some point people no longer care about the suck.

As Mr. Terry Pratchett has remarked on several occasions, “correct spelling, grammar and punctuation are not things that only happen to other people”. And the things that go wrong are many. I often change one end of a sentence, then forget to change the other end. I repeat phrases too often. I misspell, use the wrong word, don’t keep the vocabulary in check so that this peasant is suddenly using words like “vouchsafed”.

These are simple errors, and that is why it is so important to have a dedicated beta reader, who can point these mistakes out to you, because when you are in full flow, telling your story, you are trying to get it out of your head and into words. Editing comes after. Editing is important, because mistakes in your words are like bumps in the road. They distract your reader and make them think about grammar rather than gryphons.

Now one of these bumps in the road for me is when I read a phrase like “she laid down on the couch”, or “she laid down her head on the soft pillow”. Both phrases just look wrong to me. It should be, “she lay down on the couch”. The other phrase is actually correct, but still looks wrong to me.

The thing is, mistakes in this are now so common that I’m starting to doubt myself. Is there a transatlantic difference here? Don’t think so. So I need to get this straightened out once and for all, so I can pedant with righeous zeal. Nothing worse than being counter-pedanted.

So the two verbs that cause this confusion are: to lie, meaning to rest, be stretched out or reclined somewhere, and to lay, meaning the act of putting something down. (Interestingly, you have the same problem in Dutch with liggen/leggen). They are declined thusly:

To lie, lay, lain, lying: Being horizontal.
To lay, laid, laid, laying: Putting something or someone down.

So the phrase, “she laid down on the couch”, uses the past tense of to lay, instead of to lie, which is wrong. In the second phrase, (she laid down her head) she casually removes her head, and gently puts it down on the soft pillow before her body collapses in a fountain of blood. Unwise, but gramatically correct.

There’s also a few variations that muddle up the waters: “Now I lay me down to sleep” is correct: you take yourself to lay down. The rather uncouth expression of “gettin’ laid” and not “gettin lain” refers to someone laying someone else down and giving them a jolly good seeing-to.

So I have now printed out the verbs and stuck them on top of the bathroom mirror. This will allow me to lay down the law, and I’ll avoid lying awake at night pondering this.

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