Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
Quick, what’s the past tense of the verb “to blog”? Why, it’s “blogged,” of course. A great many of the verbs we use can be made past tense verbs with the addition of the “ed” suffix. But a great many of the most basic, almost elemental, verbs, are made into past tense verbs by other methods entirely. For example:
- swim: swam
- run: ran
- be: was
- have: had
- throw: threw
I’m no linguist, but my sense of the issue here is that these are all very old, common, Anglo-Saxon words. And of course language changes over time (did you know, for example, that there have been periods of linguistic upheaval during which the vowel sounds of words shifted into other vowel sounds?). So maybe some of these verbs did represent structured, regular forms but the language changed out from under them enough that they seem anomalies now. Or maybe the Anglo-Saxons simply weren’t as anal about the structure of their language as the Romans were. At any rate, we have a whole big set of these tricky, often very old, verbs that don’t follow the simple “ed” rule. It’s worth noting that new verbs, such as “to blog,” tend to follow the “ed” pattern.
Native speakers of English grow up hearing enough of the irregular verbs (otherwise known as “strong” verbs, vs. regular or “weak” verbs) used correctly that we don’t stumble too often. But a few give us fits, and today I’d like to shed some light on those two confusing bedfellows “lay” and “lie.”
So, if the prayer begins “Now I lay me down to sleep,” then surely when we’re ready to go to sleep, we’re going to go lay down. Right? Nope. In this case, “lay” is a verb you’re performing on an object; the object just happens to be yourself. So you would lay yourself down to sleep as surely as you would lay your head on the pillow and lay your book on the bedside table once your eyes started drooping. But when you go to take your nap, you lie down.
Why do these verbs give us such trouble? Well, the simple past tense of “lie” happens to be “lay.” When you’re about to take a nap, you intend to go lie down. After you’ve done it, you would say that you lay down for a nap. The past tense of the present tense verb “to lay” is “laid,” which sounds enough like “lay” (the past tense of “lie”) that it only adds to the confusion. It’s difficult even to write in a non-confusing way about the differences, so let’s try a table:
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the differences between “me,” “myself,” and “I,” and one of the distinctions I pointed out there is useful to know when battling with lay and lie. You may recall that “me” is an object and that you use it only when a verb is performed against “me.” Similarly, you use the present tense form “lay” and its past tense “laid” only when performing the behavior toward or with an object. When you are laying, you are always laying something. By contrast, when you lie (just forget for the moment that there’s a whole other meaning here pertaining to truth and falsehood), you never lie an object. So, again, you might lay yourself down, but you always lie down.
A little mnemonic that may help out if you find this description as confusing as I’m finding it tricky to write:
If you lay these rules aside, you’re lying down on the job.
The sentence here demonstrates the principle. The rules are an object that you’re laying aside, but the lying down is a verb without an object. Once you get the present tense down pat, the past tense follows easily enough if you just remember that “lay” serves as a form of both verbs.
Do you have a trick for remembering the distinction between these verbs? Can you (surely you can!) improve upon the mnemonic I’ve proposed here?