Laying down: the law

Just slipping in a short post between the previous post (which was long) and the next one (which is likely be of ‘normal’ length). Back to linguistics for this one, and its application to copy-editing.

I am a copy-editor among other things, but if you find errors, inconsistencies and infelicities in this blog, please just take it as evidence that anyone’s writing can benefit from a copy-editor’s eye, even if they are a copy-editor themselves – though I can’t personally afford to have this blog copy-edited!

I’ve noticed recently (though this could well be an example of the recency illusion – to use the term Arnold Zwicky coined on Language Log) that uses of forms of the verb lay in place of lie might be beginning to overtake the definitions given in most current dictionaries of English. I haven’t done any kind of proper research (either into corpus data or to see what other people have written), but it seems possible, at any rate, that there is language change going on here.

These three verbal paradigms are relevant:

MeaningRootSimple pasthave +be +
‘tell an untruth’lieliedliedlying
‘recline’ (intr.)lielaylainlying
‘deposit’ (tr.)laylaidlaidlaying

When some people talk about ‘laying down for a bit’, a couple of possibilities spring to mind (but I’m well aware that these things need careful study before drawing firm conclusions).

On the one hand, having two different verbs lie is a potential source of confusion (both can be used intransitively, i.e. without an object following the verb), and so there might be some pressure to differentiate the verbs.

On the other hand, users of the lay paradigm in place of the lie paradigm could be choosing a more regular paradigm (note that lie ‘tell an untruth’ and lay both have a past participial form (the form that comes after have) that is the same as the simple past form. In fact, aside from spelling, both are completely regular verbs, unlike lie ‘recline’. There is considerable semantic overlap between intransitive lie and transitive lay, making it relatively easy to use one set of forms in both cases. (And the fact that the simple past of lie is the same as the root of lay can surely only help to confuse the verbs in people’s minds.)

There are actually other intransitive/transitive verb alternations like this, e.g. riseroserisen versus raiseraisedraised. And I did actually hear someone say just a couple of weeks back, at Easter, that Jesus had ‘raised’ (as opposed to ‘risen’) from the dead. So there may be other verbs under similar pressures.

Anyway, the point of this brief post isn’t really to discuss this potential case of language change-in-progress (which may for all I know be centuries old!), but to ask: if this is language change, and we’re on the cusp of seeing lay used where lie was formerly prescribed, what is the correct approach for a copy-editor to take?

There are lots of cases where copy-editors have to make subtle judgements (or implement other people’s policies when something’s not worth fighting for). I have always corrected lay to lie in the past. At some point, though – do we have to wait for the dictionaries to catch up? – it might be better to leave well alone. And a little further down the road, it may well be prudent for good copy-editors to start correcting ‘old-fashioned’ lie to lay.