Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Readers’ Questions

 

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: My mother spent most of her life serving as an elementary school teacher. Before Mother recently passed away, she was in hospice, and the gentle doctor raised her to a sitting position so he could examine her back. Knowing she was in pain, he said, “Margie, I’m sure you want to lay back down.” Without missing a beat, my mother said, “No, I would like to lie back down!” That was the last full sentence she ever spoke. Go, Mom, go! –Tom Reid, San Diego

The Toronto Globe and Mail reported a similar story of an aged gentleman still sharp of mind and usage: “At 104, when he collapsed during a round of golf, his wife said, ‘Oh George. Do you want to lay there a minute?’ He opened his eyes and said, ‘Lie there’ before passing out again.”

Among the dozens of troublesome verbal twins that can bedevil us, lie and lay are the most frequently confused pair in the English language. Stealthily, they lie in wait, ready to lay disorder and embarrassment upon us.

Here’s the problem: Lie is a strong, irregular verb that conjugates lie-lay-lain. Lay is a weak, regular verb that conjugates lay-laid-laid. Because lay is both the present tense of to lay and the past tense of to lie and because the weak, regular verb pattern has become dominant in English, many speakers and writers use lay when they should use lie.

The most useful way to sort out lie and lay is to bear in mind that lie is an intransitive verb that means “to repose,” while lay is usually a transitive verb that means “to put.” Lay almost always takes an object, lie never. Something must be laid, and nothing can be lied.

Try visualizing this cartoon: Two hens are pictured side by side in their nests. One is sitting on an egg, and she is labeled LAYING; the other is flat on her back and labeled LYING. Sorry for the fowl language, but I always talk turkey without turning chicken!

In another bestial cartoon, a man says to his dog, “Lay down!” and the dog rolls over on its back. Then the master says, “Speak!” — and the dog says, “It’s lie.”

Here’s another reader’s letter about an intelligent canine. Read on for more real-life insight into proper usage of lie and lay:

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: My friend Beth is a high school English teacher who lives with her dear companion Sam, an intelligent golden retriever. One day, Beth’s mother was riding in the backseat of the car with Sam, who insisted on leaning on Mother. Mother told Sam to “lay down and behave.” No action. Mother repeated, “Lay down, Sam.” Still no response. Beth turned and commanded, “Lie down, Sam,” and down he went. He is, after all, the friend of an English teacher. Mary Dillon

Dave Martin, a former editor of Kitplanes magazine in Solana Beach, used to distribute a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek certificate to the grammatically negligent:

CONGRATULATIONS! With this proclamation, you are recognized as a member of a not-too-exclusive group: recipients of the Lie-Lay Recognition Award. Your certificate results from the incorrect use of lay in the following publication or broadcast: _____.

Your misunderstanding of the verbs lie and lay is shared by (1) folks in general (2) most college graduates (3) plenty of Ph.D.s and (4) all too many professional broadcasters and writers.

 People don’t lay down; they lie down. And inanimate objects aren’t capable of laying anything; they just lie there. On the other hand, chickens and stand-up comedians lay eggs, on purpose and accidentally. We hope that this recognition reminds you that people really do read and listen to what you write and say.

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The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression “shown through usage to reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of the passing year and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

The Oxford Word of the Year for 2019 is the compound word climate emergency, defined as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”

Over the course of 2019, heightened awareness of climate science and the befouling and conflagration of our precious planet has generated widespread discussion of what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called “the defining issue of our time.” Climate emergency reflects the increasing urgency of that discourse.