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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:

Present Past
lie lay
lay laid

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?

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  1. Thank u Daryl. A very nice way 2 put it. Kind of hard 2 get but once u grasp it it does make sense. I like ur mention of language changing over time, hence we have old english, middle english and modern english. I love grammar discussions. Another common confusion is “been” and “being”

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  2. I don’t have any tricks about lay and lie other than what you have written about. However, I learned this lesson from my Great Aunt who was an English teacher. I also learned enunciation from her as well.

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  3. I feel like that kid in the classroom where he asks, “Can I go to the bathroom?” and the teacher replies, “Yes, you can but no, you may not.” and it’s just going straight over his head.

    I’ve given up on trying to figure out which one to use so I reword the sentence to avoid using lay/lie if I can. No matter how many times I read everyone’s explanations, it still doesn’t make sense. It’s just not clicking together yet.

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    1. It can definitely be tricky to remember (hence this post!), and I think that as long as you don’t wind up with terribly awkward sentences as a result, rewording is a perfectly valid tactic. Honestly, in blogging, the “lie” verbs sound a bit stuffy and formal (“I decided to lie down for a nap” and “I lay down for a nap just after lunch and then went back to work”) and chances are good that they aren’t a good fit for many blogging voices.

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  4. I lied when I said I would lay my keys on the table before lying down. As a result, I lay on my keys so long they left a divot in my leg that was very sore, and I wished that I had laid them on the table before lying down. If I hadn’t lain on my keys, it would mean that I had laid them on the table as I said I would. Then I wouldn’t be sore. (Or did I just lie about the whole thing?)
    >>EVIL GRIN<<

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  5. Wonderful lesson as usual Daryl. I might lie awake thinking about it tonight, and in the morning will tell everyone how I lay awake all night. But for now I think I will lay this idea to rest, having laid it aside in the past as well. Did I get it right? 🙂

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  6. According to a Teaching Company CD with linguist John McWhorter, the verbs that change the vowel sound to indicate past (think – thought, write – wrote, etc.) evolved from Semetic languages.

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  7. Thanks so much for bringing attention to grammar. I taught English overseas for five years and returned four years ago to find that the language I taught was no longer in common use. Adverbs have almost disappeared. Nouns are used as verbs. Non has become the prefix for everything. And the suffix -ation has gone out of use. More lessons, please.

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence! I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how the grammar and usage posts have been received. I keep expecting the comments on these to dry up, but there seems to be continued interest, so I’ll probably keep beating the grammar/usage drum.

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      1. There seems to be an accepted theory that if people do something incorrectly for a sufficient amount of time, it becomes the accepted way of doing it and ultimately, the aberration becomes the rule. Much like mutation in genetics, changes made in this fashion are rarely for the better. Instead of improving language, they cause its degradation; and there are still enough of us who realize this and appreciate the efforts to remind the English-writing community that the rules state that these so-called modern accepted usages are crimes against language rather than proper grammar. It is far better to preserve, uphold and share knowledge than to pander to the whims of the uneducated and lazy.

        Some change is inevitable. Certain words gain new meanings and certain meanings of words become outdated, uncommon, and archaic. Likewise, some grammatical rules and spellings also change. The issue is that changes that happen should have a sound reasoning behind them and not be a result of cultural apathy towards the rules of language.

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  8. OK ! I’m convinced that with Word Perfect my grammar is pretty good. Go ahead and correct me. I’d sooner that, than writing comments and looking like an idiot. I think that the reply box can be very useful. Thanks to all those people that see mistakes and lend a hand. It might be a great way to meet someone who actually pays attention.

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    1. While these tools are definitely useful, and will save much heartache in many cases, they don’t catch everything; and on some occasions, recommend flawed grammar in place of correct grammar. Relying strictly on grammar correction software is much like relying solely on spell-check. It can help if you are somewhat uncertain, but it should be neither considered nor used as a substitute for actually knowing proper grammar.

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  9. I took some Old English classes in college and was surprised to find that these forms were still considered irregular in Anglo-Saxon (at least as far back as we’ve got written record). The verbs mostly used -ed to indicate past tense, but sometimes varied. (Actually there were multiple categories of irregular verbs, but I can’t remember all that anymore.) So it seems, either the words went weird earlier–maybe even before the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came over to Britain from the continent, the different tribes and regions developed their own irregular verbs and then when England became more united and English a little more uniform some of the variants were incorporated, or that these words are a result of contact with other cultures. I don’t know much about Scandinavian languages, but maybe they are a source. The Anglo-Saxons had a lot of contact with Scandinavian cultures and during the the period of the Danelaw, Danes were in charge of large portions of England, resulting in words like skirt and school.

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    1. I certainly am not an expert historian when it comes to language, but I do think that your case for “irregular” verbs is quite probable if not spot-on. English is a Germanic language at its base, as are a good number, if not all, of the Nordic languages, though there is more obvious influence of Latin-based language in English than most of the others. There are also words that have been adapted and derived from other base languages. Latin, itself, isn’t a first-generation language. Certainly most of the irregularities seen even as far back as Middle and Old English have their source in one of these or other originating base languages.

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