‘I will survive … Did you think I’d lay down and die?’

One theme in this week’s chapter of the textbook is ‘Survival’. The chapter begins with stories about the New York terrorist attacks of 2001 and the Tenerife airport disaster of 1977 (specifically, of two people who survived by getting out of the building or plane respectively). I thought this was a depressing way to start the first class of the year, especially so soon after the Paris attacks and the Air Asia incident and moderately soon after the Sydney attack and the two Malaysian Airlines incidents (one current student is from Malaysia – she actually joked that she had come to Australia on a Malaysian Airlines flight!), so I transferred that reading to the second lesson, then got it over with as quickly as possible.

In the next section of the chapter (which we did on Tuesday) came the song ‘I will survive’, best known from the version by Gloria Gaynor in 1978. This was also rather fraught, because I know one student has had some upheavals in her love life. Intriguingly, that student asked if  Gaynor wrote the song herself, and if it was based on her own experience. A quick check of Wikipedia showed that this classic of female empowerment was, in fact, written by two men (Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris), though it doesn’t say whether it was based on one of their own experience as the leaver and comer-back of a relationship. She also asked if Gloria Gaynor had died (comparatively) recently. I had a vague memory of a singer from the disco era dying; it was, in fact, Donna Summer (in 2012).

As we listened to the song, I consciously heard for the first time the line: ‘Did you think I’d lay down and die?’. Prescriptivists insist that the only correct construction is ‘lie down and down’ (though ‘lay down and died’ would be the correct past tense). ‘Lay’ is transitive: you lay something (or, colloquially, someone*). ‘Lie’ is intransitive: you lie down, or on something, or next to or with someone. Even this is not the full story, because ‘lay’ can also be intransitive: ‘My hen has not been laying recently’ (understood: laying eggs).

However, it is incredibly easy to get them mixed up if you are not super-concentrating, even when you believe that the distinction is worth preserving (as I do); when I typed the previous paragraph, I first typed ‘Lie is intransitive: you lay down’, probably because I still had the version from the song in my mind. To make things worse, the two words have similar meanings, and the past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’: the two sets of verb forms are ‘lie, lay, lain’ and ‘lay, laid, laid’. (There is also ‘lie’ meaning ‘to tell an untruth’, which is distinct enough in meaning and grammar that no-one is going to confuse that one with either of the other two. Intriguingly, the three words have existed side-by-side since Old English times.)

Descriptivists record that ‘lay’ is used by some people instead of ‘lie’ (and, perhaps less often, the other way round: *my hens lie eggs every day, ?my hen lay an egg yesterday, ?my hen has lain eggs every day this week (in linguistics writing, an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence indicates an ungrammatical sentence – absolutely no-one says ‘my hens lie eggs’**; a question mark indicates a disputed usage). Some (?most) dictionaries label ‘lay’ for ‘lie’ ‘non-standard’ and include a usage note, the strength of which might depend on the editorial policy of the dictionary. For example, Dictionary.com, based on the Random House Dictionary, says ‘In all but the most careful, formal speech, forms of lay are commonly heard in senses normally associated with lie. In edited written English such uses of lay are rare and are usually considered nonstandard’, without telling people that they should or must use the two in any particular way. Among grammar or usage books, Michael Swan includes lie, lie and lay in a section entitled ‘verbs that are easily confused’, and devotes four paragraphs to discussing them. Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy don’t even include it in their list of irregular verbs, and their four brief mentions of the contentious two words don’t mention the usage issue. I didn’t check any major style guides, but I suspect that at least most of them specify the distinction.

My attitude, for what it’s worth, is: there is a distinction in meaning and grammar between the two, and this distinction is worth being careful about. But the two words are incredibly easy to mix up, and some, maybe many, maybe most, people do, in fact, mix them up, at least some of the time. But even when they do, there is very rarely, if ever, any chance of ambiguity. (Unless you live in a farmhouse, and even if you do, you are unlikely to say ‘my hen is lying/laying on my bed’). If a student produced this ‘error’ in general speech or writing, I’d probably ignore it; I’d only mention it if this was the grammar point being practiced, or the student expressed confusion. However, on the grand scale of language sins, this is a minor one (if indeed it is one at all). A far greater language sin is someone using an ‘error’ to cast aspersions on someone else’s intelligence, education or carefulness.

So how often are ‘lie down’ and ‘lay down’ actually used? Bearing in mind the strengths and weaknesses of Google’s Ngram Viewer, we see that ‘lie down and die’ is still most often used, and that its usage has been stable for several decades. ?‘lay down and die’ increased slowly in the same time span. ‘lay down and died’ decreased slowly and *?‘laid down and died’ is rarely but steadily used (this is ungrammatical for me, but obviously people write it). None of this tells us how these writers are using these phrases: are they actually using them, if so, by mistake or is it a systematic part of their English, or are they discussing the usage issue, as I have just been doing?

Could (or should) the line in the song be ‘Did you think I’d lie down and die?’ instead? The fact remains that Perren and Fekaris wrote ‘lay’ and Gaynor sang it. Could (or should) Bob Dylan have written and sung ‘Lie lady, lie’? (This is, in fact, very difficult to sing; keeping the same vowel sound definitely helps sing those works.) Dylan wrote and sang, apparently deliberately, ‘lay’, the  prescriptivists were horrified and Dylan cried all the way to the bank.

I think I need to go and lay down for a while.

* There is a rhyming couplet: ‘He laid whatever could be laid/ an egg, a table, and a maid’. It’s in one of the language books I have, but I can’t remember which one, and I can’t find it on the internet.
** Though there is a riddle: ‘What’s a hindu? It lies iggs’. (Think ‘New Zulland iccent’.)

lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group 1978
Michael Swan (2005), Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press
Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy (2006), Cambridge Grammar of English, Cambridge University Press
Dictionary http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/lie?s=t, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/lay?s=ts

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