Don’t Take This Lying Down
by Barbara Lehtiniemi
A short piece I wrote earlier in 2023 just won’t lie down. It began with a quickly-drafted piece as part of my annual Note-a-Day project. In that project, I write something each day for thirty-one days, based on titles given to me by volunteers among my Facebook friends and family. The title provided for January 12 was “Lay Down.”
Based on the feedback I got on that piece after I posted it on Facebook, I decided to use “Lay Down” for my reading at CAGAC’s Write Thing event on February 15. For that event, I renamed the piece “Lay down Lowdown.”
“Lay down Lowdown” really seemed to resonate with those attending the Write Thing, and I thought it might appeal to a broader audience. On March 3, a slightly-revised version of the piece, now titled “The Lie Down Lowdown: A romp around two crazy-making verbs“, was published online in The Voice Magazine, Athabasca University’s student magazine. (I am an alumna of AU and have written many articles for The Voice over the years.)
Despite my painstaking research into the verbs “to lie” and “to lay”, I still have to look them up each time I use them.
Below is the original article, as read at the Write Thing event in February:
Lay down Lowdown
Lay down and go to sleep! But wait, is that right? Or is it “Lie down and go to sleep”?
I flatter myself that I have a good grasp of the English language. Spelling is my superpower, punctuation my passion. Grammar—well mostly okay but it can be a bit of a grind.
There are two similar verbs that continue to confound me: the verbs “to lie” and “to lay”. (Lie in this case meaning to recline, rather than to tell a falsehood. But perhaps there’s a connection somewhere.)
Whenever I write something and I want a character to take their ease on a flat surface, such as a bed, or if I want them to take an item and put it somewhere, I have to look up whether I want them to lie or to lay.
Confusingly, the past tense of lie is lay. And don’t get me started about the present participle of lie (okay, I’m already started: it’s lying. Seriously.)
No matter how many times I look it up, I can’t seem to fix it in my mind which verb means what and is conjugated in what way. I either have to stop and look it up (and I have saved some reference tools specifically for this verb) or—as is often the case—I reword the sentence to avoid using either lie or lay.
Since I’ve already had to look it up today, I can tell you the following:
The verb “to lie” pertains to the self—the person performing the action. If I want to take my ease on the sofa, I will lie down.
The verb “to lay” pertains to something or someone other than the self. If I want to place an object (or, I suppose, a small person) on the table or the floor, I will lay it (or them) down.
That’s so easy, right? I lie down. I lay my tools down.
But wait, there’s more! If the action took place earlier today, then I would say that I lay down on the sofa. I lie on the sofa (now), I lay on the sofa (in the past.) As for my tools, I lay them down (now), I laid them down (in the past.)
Now with the past participle: I have lain on the sofa for an hour now. I have laid my tools down several times. And with the present participle: I am lying on the sofa right now (not really.) I am laying my tools down now.
Screaming yet? I am!
It makes the bedtime prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” a bit confusing (shouldn’t it be “lie”?). Except that the person praying is laying themselves down like an object (I lay ME down to sleep, rather than just I lie down to sleep.) Bit of a technicality, but it’s correct. I think.
I always thought I should let sleeping dogs lie. But should I let them lay? The more I think about it, the more my head hurts.
I think I’d better lie down for a while.
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Great little note on these English words. Thank you for the explanations.
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Really enjoyed your commentary and will pass it along to several friends with whom I’ve had discussion about the proper use of ‘lie’ and ‘lay’. My story is that my mother had fallen and had needed surgery to remove a blood clot on her brain. She was in the neurological ICU. She was the daughter of an British man who had taught English for forty-four years. In her post-surgery ‘fog’, she heard some nurses interacting with another patient. They were firmly telling him to ‘lay down’. My mother actually spoke her first words at that point: It’s ‘lie down’, not ‘lay down’! And she remembered the incident and rather sheepishly recounted it! I share it with you now.
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This is a great piece, Barb. I enjoyed it that evening at the Write Thing.
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This was fun to read
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