Lay lady lay

I realise that some will see this as a sacrilegious thing to say on Good Friday, but I have admitted it on this blog before, so I’ll say it again regardless of the day: I’m not a huge Dylan fan.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. For this sin, I expect to have a few less followers by tomorrow afternoon (when the Northern Hemisphere catches up). The reason it will only be a few is because most followers don’t actually read the blog, as far as I can gather.

But back to Dylan.

Why is it that I never really took a liking for his music? Maybe his particular brand of folk-country-rock music is a taste I still have to acquire. I do like some folk music, and a lot of rock music, but truth be told, I’m not much for country, unless it’s a little bit alt. Then again, maybe it’s the nasal quality of the younger Dylan’s singing voice that I’ve never really liked, although that has now developed into a gravelly deep voice that I have no objection to.

But maybe, and most likely, it’s because I have traced the annoying, recurring misuse of the word lay in everyday conversation back to his 1969 song Lay Lady Lay. It seems clear that Dylan is to blame for the constant and blatant misuse of the word lay that I encounter in my day-to-day life.

The situation is getting so out of hand that I have started to wonder if I’m the only person left in the English-speaking world who still believes that there is a sentence structure where the word lie is correct and where lay sounds wrong – and also ignorant, or silly.

It does make me fear for the future of the human race. From giving up on lay and lie, it’s a slippery downward slope. The next thing you know, no-one is bothering to use an indicator when they change lanes, and it’s all because they just don’t care any more. They don’t care about good grammar, and they don’t care about the risk of causing an accident, writing off their car and/or yours, and causing injury to themselves and others. From there, it’s a small step to organised crime or party politics.

Now, I realise that the English language is a constantly evolving thing, and I applaud that. As it has become so ubiquitous, I can’t say when, in the evolution of the language, the change from lie to lay took place. Was there a memo about it that I missed? Not according to the Cambridge dictionary online, which says that lay means

to put something in a flat or horizontal position, usually carefully or for a particular purpose

to prepare a plan or method of doing something

and goes on to say that the verb lay must have an object.

Thus: Lay your work out on the desk; try to lay the baby down in the cot as quietly as you can; I am laying out the clothes I plan to wear tomorrow but I can’t find any clean socks because no-one in this house has put away any laundry for about 3 weeks.*

(While researching this topic, you may be interested to know that my research team came up with a quote from another blog – but promptly forgot what blog they found it on! – suggesting that, if used correctly, in a sentence that’s in the present tense, you should be able to replace the word lay with the word put. (Use the phrases above to try it at home for free!) According to this theory, if put doesn’t work then you should use lie.

Let’s try that test now.

Put lady put,

put across my big brass bed

Hmmm. It’s actually worse than lay, isn’t it. Definitely wrong. Which tells us that lie would be grammatically correct, although I can accept that it would not have sounded quite as catchy, and would have presented some difficult obstacles for the songwriter to get over.

Lie doesn’t rhyme with stay, for a start, a word that is tripping over itself in its eagerness to be utilised in the next verse. What word could Dylan have used in verse two, if he’d used lie in verse 1? Sky? Pie? Die? You can see that there is much more at stake in writing a song, than merely grammar. Had he stuck with correct grammar in verse one, the lady in the song may well have had to be killed off in verse 2, possibly by eating a poisoned pie, leaving the protagonist singing mournfully to the empty sky.

Bob Dylan (in a harlequin costume) tries correct grammar in the early stages of writing Lay Lady Lay.

 

The other thing Dylan achieves by using lay, is to very efficiently create an image using only two words.

Instead of speedily conjuring a scene of a woman draped languidly across a bed, opening the song with the words “lie lady lie”might cause the listener to initially suppose the song was about a woman who had deceived the singer, a misconstrued notion which would take until line 2 to be cleared up. Song lyrics need to be economical, you can’t waste a whole line having the listener set out down a conceptually wrong path, just for the sake of getting the grammar right. (Although in this case, if he had used lie, as previously covered, he would now have to rhyme lie with pie and die, so I suppose he could have solved this dilemma by turning the song into a ballad about his lying female associate who ends up getting what was coming to her via a few drops of arsenic in a beef and mushroom pie.)

So of course I’m not seriously criticising Dylan for using incorrect grammar in a song. I’m a firm believer in poetic licence in song writing (and poetry!), where other things are more important than grammar. We can wonder all afternoon about how the song would have unfolded if he’d used lie instead of lay, but the point is, poetic licence does not apply in every day speech, where one’s primary aim is to communicate clearly, not to set a rhythm, create a rhyme, or evoke an image using only 2 words.

So far, we’ve talked about how lay and lie are two separate verbs with different usage, but, just to prove how confusing English can be, even to native speakers, get this: lay is also the past tense of lie! Therefore, if speaking in the past tense, you can use lay without an object. Eg, I lay back on the daybed and imagined I was holidaying in the French Riviera.

But the reason I am frothing at the mouth, and have finally succumbed to ranting about it here, is because I don’t recall ever learning these lessons in grammar – indeed, I am quite sure I never learned any rules of grammar at school beyond nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and perhaps tenses. I don’t know what it means to conjugate a verb, as some good grammar-focussed blogs do when explaining the different uses for lie and lay. But despite the lack of formal training, I must have developed an ear for what is correct and what is not, and I am forever cringing at hearing lay used in the present tense, to replace the word lie. For example

I’ll get you all to start by laying on your mats (a yoga teacher)

She’s not feeling well so I told her to lay down (a colleague at work)

All I want to do is have a day off and lay around reading a book (overheard in a bookshop) (I find it hard to believe this person can actually read.)

I’m disheartened every time I hear this kind of misuse of the word lay, but I don’t correct people. To counteract the frustration I feel when I hear these misplaced phrases, I cheer myself up by quipping a witty response like Should we lay an egg on our yoga mat? Or should we lay some bricks? Of course, I don’t say this out loud, but only in my own head. And after I’ve chuckled, and congratulated myself on my wit, I make my own small protest, by lying on my yoga mat instead.

*

*a true story

**Fans of Dylan probably stopped reading after the second line of this post, but fans of yoga mats keen to read more about the yoga mat that starred in this post, should click on the tag, yoga mat, (below) to be taken to more scintillating yoga mat-related stories. 

 

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8 Comments

  1. The world owes you, B, for your tenacious commitment to grammatical justice. Except, for those of us needing a second to grasp the meaning and context of words, thing could get even more problematic.

    BD: Lie, Lady, Lie and then we’ll eat some pie

    Lady: I’m not really hungry

    BD: OK, I’ll just put that in the fridge

    Lady: What did you do that for?

    BD: Er. You said you weren’t hungry

    Lady: But you said to lie!

    I fear it doesn’t end well.

    (Ta so much for yer other replies. I’ll be popping to see you in my capacity of yer biggest fan. By biggest I mean, huge, as in not, like, really fact, but…)

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Of course! I didn’t think through the fact that she’d need to lie about the pie. I knew it would get messy but that’s really gone bananas. I’m sorry that this Easter Sunday brings an end to your blogging and I hope you will stay in touch. When I finally get back over to Ireland to visit my sister, I will expect you to show up too, bearing buns.

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      Reply
  2. The whole point of writing poetry is that this is hard to do and that the poet is a skilful wordsmith who manages to persuade the language to form poetry while maintaining correct grammar and syntax. There was a time when song lyricists were poets too and wrote their lyrics in correct English, while maintaining metre and rhyme. No longer. The likes of Dylan produce low quality ‘lyrics’ whose awfuless is to an extent masked by the equal awfulness of the music. If you recite the lyrics of a modern popular song, it sounds like something from the works of W.T. McGonagall, provocative of laughter rather than of any nobler sentiment.

    ‘Lay’ for ‘lie’ is only one of the more blatant misuses of our language. An increasingly popular one is to use ‘decimate’ as though it means ‘destroy’. I hear a well known radio presenter continually describing the songs he plays as ‘fantastic’, clearly believing that this means ‘excellent’ and not ‘partaking of the quality of fantasy’.

    It would, though, be otiose to continue the gruesome catalogue of common barbarisms. Like Canute, we can only sit and watch the tide wash over our feet. Certain things must be let go simply because we do not have the power to hold on to them, except in our own speech which will sound increasingly archaic and fussy as time goes by.

    Throughout the ages, scholars have complained that the language is in decline and have given their proofs. Yet, if they were right, then by now we would be jabbering incomprehensibly, unable to convey the simplest proposition. Language is self-healing and it mutates to restore lost meanings and distinctions. We may not like the changes but, then, we do not own the language – no one does – and cannot dictate how it should evolve. The most we can do is to maintain standards in our own speech and writing, not out of pride in ourselves but out of love for our beautiful language, and hope that a little of it rubs off on others…

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. I’ve just discovered your blog, and i’m so glad i did. ( I see you’re a fellow Melbournian, too! Well, i mean, i’m up in the Dandenongs now, but close enough).
    Anyway, thanks for the laughs. I was feeling sad, but the little comic up there cracked me up. I grew up with a father who was a HUGE Bob Dylan fan, and have therefore heard enough of his music to last several lifetimes. I kinda groan inwardly whenever i hear a BD tune now ( apart from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for some reason). Having grown up amidst rednecks, i’m on edge whenever i hear something slightly ‘country’. (Unless,as you say, it has a bit of an ‘alt’ vibe). I’m not super pedantic about grammar, but i still chuckled at this post. ( “should we lay an egg on our yoga mat?”) . I really needed a chuckle. So, thanks ^_^
    P.s. Pardon any annoying typos and grammatical oversights which may annoy; i’m typing on a keyboard which has half the letters rubbed off, and i don’t touch type, and i’m also drinking wine.Sorry :/

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Firstly: please do not apologise for drinking wine while commenting on this blog. Drinking wine while commenting on this blog is highly encouraged and you have passed the initiation with flying colours. What’s more, I applaud you for typing on a keyboard that has half the letters rubbed off. (You might enjoy a post I wrote a few years ago, on a computer that was, I think, built in about 1965, while I was travelling in Italy. I think it’s called The Liebster Effect, or something.) Re. drinking wine, that makes two of us, since I’m drinking wine as I type, but what else would we be doing on a chilly Friday night in Melbourne (or the Dandenongs)? At least all my keys are intact.

      Amongst the comments I receive, it’s especially nice to hear from someone local and (relatively) nearby. It doesn’t happen that often that I hear from a fellow Melbournian (or even Australian!), so thank you for reading AND commenting!

      Also – I’m sorry to hear that you were feeling sad, but I’m glad you were able to say so. In the time I’ve been writing this blog I’ve learned what it means to feel truly sad, so there is plenty on my blog to fit either mood – sad or jolly, because despite what social media and the blogosphere may lead us to think, no-one is exempted from feeling sad, it’s a part of being human, and if I was going to keep up this blog, I had to write about the sad bits as well.

      So thank you again, for actually reading, and actually reading more than one post, and then taking the time to comment! I’m glad to have helped cheer up your Friday night. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      • Ah, well it’s good to hear there are other wine drinking bloggers out there this evening! Good good 🙂

        I probably need to invest in a new keyboard. Although part of me feels as though perhaps this will help me to learn how to touch type. The other part of me, however, ( specifically the part of me drinking wine) knows that a new keyboard would be wise. I will look out for that Liebster Effect post!

        Yes- it seems that Aus WordPressingtons are few and far between! It’s odd. This is the 2nd Australian blog i’m come across here.
        No worries; i’m a very commenty person. I rant a lot, and go on all sorts of irrelevant tangents. It’s nice when that’s well recieved!

        Aww, thankyou for saying that. I feel that authentic expression of emotion is still such a huge taboo in our culture. It’s quite unfortunate. As you say, sadness- and indeed all emotions; shiny and otherwise- are part of being human. Kudos to you for keeping it real. It’s appreciated. We need more of that sort of thing, methinks.

        Thank YOU! I hope you have a lovely night and weekend 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • PS, I didn’t notice any typos, but I have been drinking wine.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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