Lay vs Lie — the confusion is Dear Abby’s fault

Here’s a funny and, I suppose, reasonably plausible reason for the continual confusion between lay and lie.

The original Dear Abby was fond of describing the difference between these two verbs by saying “people lie and chickens lay.” … One myth that persists about the verbs to lie and to lay is that we should use lie in reference to people and lay in reference to animals or inanimate objects (very likely an unintended outcome of the Dear Abby oversimplification about people and chickens).

That is certainly a common and persistent belief. I don’t know how many times I have flinched (inwardly; I’m generally too polite to correct other people’s grammar) when I’ve heard someone tell their dog “Lay down, Sadie!”

I used to train dogs — more precisely, I used to run occasional classes in which I taught people how to train their own dogs, which is 95% of what we mean by “training dogs.” So I heard this a lot. Since, as I said, I don’t like to correct anyone’s grammar, I solved the problem by saying, “One word commands really work best. Put the name first and say, “Sadie, down,” and she’ll hear that better.”

Which is true, incidentally, and yes, at the time — this was a good while ago — Sadie was a very common name for female dogs in this area.

But of course that solution doesn’t do anything to get people to really believe that subjects lie down, and subjects lay objects down. Or, similarly, that subjects sit down and subjects set objects down.

Someday, in the blissful utopian future, we may once again arrive at a situation where grade school English teachers actually explain the difference between grammatical subjects and objects to their students rather than utterly failing to explain this,* and at that point, possibly the lay/lie and sit/set problems will disappear.

In the meantime, I will continue to see ads for t-shirts that confuse the words, such as one I saw on Facebook recently that said, “I’m sorry I’m late, my cat was laying on me.”

Interestingly when I just followed the link right now, I see the mistake has been corrected on the t-shirt.

I hereby take credit for that, as I reposted the Facebook ad with the comment, “I admit I can’t wear a t-shirt that says “laying” when it should by “lying.”

Now that printing on the t-shirt no longer contains a grammatical error, the shirt is actually pretty cute. And I do know someone who just got a new kitten. Maybe I’ll get her one, just to encourage correct grammar on t-shirts.

Aside from lay/lie, the linked post points out an error that I’m aware of, but not as sensitive to. It’s this one:

[H]ere’s an issue raised by a professional writer about something he heard on the TV news: “The reporter said he’d heard ‘nothing but superlatives.’ He then listed four adjectives, ‘terrific, wonderful, beautiful, fantastic,’ none of which is a superlative.”

True! Those aren’t superlatives; they’re just positive terms. A superlative would be “This is the MOST beautiful city in the world!” But I wouldn’t have thought anything of it personally. I believe the back of my brain has accepted “superlative” as a synonym for “highly positive.” Now that someone else has pointed to this mistake, maybe I will start to notice it as a mistake, but even in the utopian future, I don’t think I’ll care about this one that much.

Though I grant, if we lose the word “superlative,” we will need a different word for that. “Most positive” is an amusingly meta construction that might do.

*I know some grade school teachers somewhere must still teach basic grammar and punctuation, perhaps by diagramming sentences, which is imo the best way to learn what the parts of a sentence actually are. If you’re one of those teachers, good for you, and keep up the good fight! But at least in my area, this seems an area neglected by 100% of grade schools. Never mind grammatical subjects and objects, the college students I see generally do not know** what a noun or a verb is.

**Yes, I mean literally do not know. If you ask, “Does this sentence start with a noun?” they can’t tell.

I ask that question because if the sentence does NOT start with a noun, it has started with an introductory clause, and you will put a comma after that clause and before the grammatical subject — which, no, they can’t identify, but everyone puts the comma in the right place if they know they should put a comma somewhere.

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8 thoughts on “Lay vs Lie — the confusion is Dear Abby’s fault”

  1. For the loss of knowledge of nouns and verbs, I blame the disappearance of Schoolhouse Rock as a universal childhood experience. (It’s been on DVD and now Disney+. But now you have to *look* for it instead of absorbing it by osmosis.)

  2. Yikes. Is not knowing a noun (or noun phrase) ‘functional illiteracy”?

    My father has a framed poster that consists entirely of sentence diagrams for “Jabberwocky.”
    And I have a sticker on the back for inheritance, may it be many years hence.

    (Twas Brillig) and (the slithy toves) (did gyre and gimble) (in the wabe))…

  3. Pete, I feel deprived because no one ever used Jabberwocky to demonstrate sentence diagramming for me.

    Mike, you could be right, I still remember a lot of Schoolhouse Rock. How do we sneak past lions? Quietly! Quietly! Quietly!

    I don’t know that I would say that not being able to identify a noun as such is actual illiteracy. Some — and I know, any is way too many — of our students are in fact fairly close to illiterate, in the sense that they can’t tell when a sentence they wrote doesn’t mean what they think it means and are unable to revise it to mean what they want it to mean.

    But a reasonable proportion of students can’t say, “That’s a noun,” but can in fact read and write fairly coherent sentences. They must do it entirely by feel because they definitely would not be able to explain the role of the subject or object in the sentence, or discuss any other technical aspect of writing. That is, they entirely lack the vocabulary, but they are somewhat capable of the performance.

  4. I never learned to do grammar diagrams of sentences, so I looked up images for Jabberwocky sentence diagrams.
    I still don’t understand how that works, and sometimes I couldn’t figure out from the diagrams how the sentences would run in the poem…
    I’d hoped to gain a quick skill to help with my proofreading, but this looks like a very complicated system.
    I guess I’d need to read a real grammar book to learn this skill, and I don’t really feel like going to that much effort when going by how the language feels is working adequately for my needs.

  5. No, diagramming is definitely not a quick way to help with proofreading! The thing I think it’s good for is teaching what the parts of a sentence actually are and what those parts are doing. Once a student learns to write correct sentences, they’re much more able to understand what’s gone wrong when they write a bad one, and how to fix it. It’s really a way of teaching students that there ARE parts of sentences that DO JOBS, and the vocabulary that can then be used to talk about sentence structure and grammar — or that’s what I think!

    Something like Jabberwocky would be fun to diagram in the same way a logic puzzle is fun, but probably not useful!

    And I also would argue that reading a lot of correct sentences WILL teach students how to write, but not how to talk about sentences. That’s where we get students who can write a pretty decent paragraph or paper, but can’t identify the subject of a sentence — and sometimes can’t identify a noun.

  6. What Rachel said.
    But more: Sentence diagrams are the bread and butter of linguistics: they have a canonical form (Subj->Verb->Obj), so a translated sentence has (nearly) the same diagram in all languages.
    The stuff dangling off below is decoration: a noun becomes a noun phrase, for example, and a subordinate clause gets it’s own line.

    And no, the process is not reversible.
    In particular, “All mimsey were the borogroves, and the moment raths outgrabe” becomes “The borogroves were all mimsey, and the mome raths were outgrabe”. But my favorite sentence in the diagram by far is:

    And, as in uffish thought he stood,
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
    And burbled as it came!

    The diagram is crazy complicated–look at all those commas!–and several words are nonsense*, but we still understand the sentence without trouble.** Somewhere,
    Noam Chomsky is smiling.

    * or at least they were nonsense before the poem was written.
    ** Exercise: diagram this sentence

  7. Thanks Pete, that explains some of the difficulty I had with decyphering that diagram image.
    Also, word order in Dutch works differently than in English.

    I’m enjoying the Crash Course linguistics course on YouTube – someone here might like it too. Here’s the episode about sentence structure:

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