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Stephen Fry and the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’

October 9, 2011

I was watching QI last night, pleasantly mellow from a few glasses of red wine, when I heard Stephen Fry say ‘What swamps and quicksands lay awaiting -‘ and was abruptly shaken from my torpor. Stephen Fry not knowing the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’? Impossible, surely!

If it had been anyone else but Stephen Fry I probably wouldn’t have bothered to blog about it. The confusion between the two words is widespread and probably terminal (John Major made a mistake with it a few years ago: ‘The blame lays with Serbia’). At the risk of being tedious let’s run through the rules. First, we can remove ‘lie’ meaning to tell a deliberate untruth with intent to deceive from the question. The words we are looking at are ‘lie’ meaning to be in a horizontal position; and ‘lay’ meaning to place something in a horizontal position.

‘Lie’ is intransitive and is usually followed by a preposition or adverb: lie on the floor, lie down, and indeed lie ahead.

‘Lay’ is transitive and therefore  followed by an object: Lay down your arms; or, Lay your sleeping head my love, human on my faithless arm.

(An exactly analogous distinction can be found between ‘rise’ and ‘raise’.)

The words are close enough in sound and meaning that it isn’t surprising they are often confused. But it gets worse. The past tense of ‘lie’ happens to be ‘lay’ (if Fry had been speaking in the past tense, there would have been no mistake). The past tense of lay’ is ‘laid’. The past participle of ‘lie’ is ‘lain’, while the past participle of ‘lay’ is ‘laid’.

In some dialects ‘lay’ is used for both meanings, and in those dialects it sounds natural. Lay Lady Lay would sound wrong as Lie Lady Lie. But it doesn’t sound right in standard English. I would have expected a professional pedant and enthusiast for all things linguistic to get this right.  Pull your socks up, Stephen!

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One Comment
  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    Regarding Dylan, I let “Lay Lady Lay” pass because of a) the poetic repetition of that “lay” syllable, & b) the innunedo, but it annoys me in all his other songs (“Early one morning the sun was shining/I was laying in bed”). Of course, the fact that to lay can colloquially be to fuck just makes things worse (what was he doing in bed?).
    Neutral Milk Hotel’s otherwise flawless In the Aeroplane Over the Sea makes this mistake in just about every song, which, for me anyway, spoils such wonderfully poetic lines as: “And one day we will die/And our ashes will fly/From the aeroplane over the sea/But for now we are young/Let us lay in the sun/And count every beautiful thing we can see”.
    I get the feeling from your post, though, that you’re basically willing to let this one go unless it’s someone who ought to know better, like Fry, yes?

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