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. 


You say tomay-to, I say tom-ahto, let’s call the whole thing off

Here in the land of Oz-stray-lia, we take great pride in drawing out our vowels, particularly that long aaaaayyy in Oz-traaaaaaayyyy-lia, as much as possible. It’s what makes us Oz-traaaay-lian. Well, that and our universal love of beaches and sport and draping ourselves in an Aussie Flag and a pair of thongs* before we go up to the shop to buy milk.

Note, however, that even though we Aussies all love sport so much, we don’t commonly refer to sports. As much as we adore it, one sport seems to be enough for us. Now, I’m not saying we never put an s on the end of the word, but over here, it’s stinkin’ hot, mate, so if you can save a little bit of energy by cutting a word short, even by one letter, you do.

Or perhaps it’s that, in our Australian minds at least, if not in the dictionary, sport is satisfactory as both the singular and plural noun. After all, we don’t add an “s” to other plural nouns and refer to sheeps, deers or pantss, believe it or not, even if we are uncouth and run around draped in a flag.

Here at It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories (TM), unfortunately we don’t have a grammar expert on staff. Regrettably, the nearest we have to a grammar expert is someone who got an A in Year 12 English and has a dictionary on her phone. To discover, therefore, whether the word sport is a singular or plural noun, the team here at IKMWL had to embark on some rigorous online research. However, after googling at least 2 different online dictionaries, our research budget for this project ran out, so we are unable to answer that question. I’m sure some of you will be able to, however, and perhaps you will be generous enough to let us know what the definitive answer is. (Please address all correspondence to It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories, in your capital city. No stamp required, as long as you post it before 6pm on the second Monday of the month.)

I have no doubt that someone with superior knowledge of grammar could explain this (and use better grammar in that previous phrase), but the IKMW research team hypothesised that sport is a lot like fish: you can have one fish, you can have 2 fish (even a red fish or a blue fish), and you can also have a whole pond full of fish – making fish both a singular and plural noun – yet I don’t think it’s incorrect to refer to fishes. Whoever wrote that story in the Bible about the loaves and fishes certainly thought so anyway, and I can see why. If it had been called The Loaves and The Fish, the dramatic point of the story may have been missed.

One fish. (Blue fish.)

One fish. (Blue fish.)

Pic: Dr Seuss Wiki

I frequently find myself reading American authors, or perusing the headings of news reports syndicated from America, where sport is used as though the word is singular, and requires an “s” to become plural.

Thus, in Australia we would say “Well, that was the news for today. Now, to sport” “I used to play a lot of sport” “She does a lot of sport at school” “What sport do you play?” In America, I gather the equivalent sentences would be “….Now, to sports”, “I used to play a lot of sports” “She does a lot of sports at school,” “What sports do you play?”

The funny thing is that when it comes to maths, the discrepancy is the other way around. Because in Australia we generally say maths, rather than math, which Americans say. 

Of course, in this case, both of us are abbreviating the word mathematics. Our research team here at IKMW Labs also spent some time looking up the definition of mathematics to determine whether it should be classed as a singular or plural noun. Is it a singular area of study, or a plural collective of infinitely recurring little numbers and plus and minus signs that all band together to stand up for their rights?

Our research team found that mathematics is “the abstract science of number, quantity, and space, either as abstract concepts (pure mathematics ), or as applied to other disciplines such as physics and engineering (applied mathematics ),”  a definition which did not directly answer our question. They pondered this definition for some time over an extended tea break, and the majority of the research team were of the opinion that this makes mathematics a plural noun, on the basis that the study of concepts incorporating the idea of infinity surely has to be a plural noun when there is an infinite amount of stuff hidden inside it. (This train of thought led me to wonder whether infinity is a singular or plural noun). (At this point I’m starting to question why we embarked upon this particular line of research. I will be checking back on the minutes from that meeting to see just whose idea this was.)

If you follow the logic that I used regarding sport, that would mean that math should be sufficient as a plural noun. It shouldn’t require the addition of an “s.” So why do Aussies keep the “s”? Could it be because if you take the “s” off the end of the mathematics, the word becomes an adjective, mathematic, eg, this is a rather difficult mathematic equation

Self explanatory really.  There are 2 fish.

Self explanatory really.

Pic: Dr Seuss Wiki

I don’t know the answer to this puzzle, and I regret to report to all our shareholders that funding for this research project has now come to an end. The all-expenses paid trip to LA and Disneyland taken by the team here at IKMW Labs was a lot of fun, and was crucial to our research, as it allowed us to confirm that Americans do, indeed, say “sports” and “math” even in real life and not just on TV. However that part of the research used up most of our funds so we have not been able to come up with any conclusion at this stage, as to why Australians add an “s” to “math.”

As a side note to this project, while writing up our findings, I’ve discovered that, probably in any country in the world, writing the word sport more than a few times can cause the writer to start wondering if she is using the correct word, or whether she has misspelled it. After staring too long at the word sport, it looks quite ridiculous, a sort of hybrid between short and spurt, words surely never heard out on the playing field without signifying a failure of some sort or other.

And by the way, I’m Australian, so yes,  I say Tom-AH-dow.

And pot-AAAAAY-dow.



* in American, thongs (pronounced “thongs”) are flip-flops. (pronounced “flip-flops”).



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