Posted by: gdevi | July 15, 2014

Lay Lady Lay

I am teaching Summer 2, and I guess I should, by now, not be surprised by this at all, but I am, truthfully, stumped by the utter confusion amongst students on the verb forms “lie,” and “lay,” and the unbelievable syntax that results from confounding one with the other.

In most dialects of Standard English, the usage is pretty clear:

to lie (to infinitive) – meaning “to rest,” intransitive verb — “I lie down, “he lies down,” “we all lie down” etc for the Present Tense. “I lay down,”  “he lay down,”  “we all lay down” etc for the Past Tense.

to lay (to infinitive) – meaning “to place something in a horizontal position,” transitive verb — “Hens lay eggs” (egg is the direct object) for the Present Tense. “He laid concrete on the driveway” for the Past Tense.

I guess, in careless usage, the confusion confounded happens because the past tense of one looks like the present tense of the other. But, stop and think, nation. Remember that old prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep”? See the little word “me”? That is the object of the transitive verb “lay.” If it were “lie,” then you would simply say “Now I lie down to sleep.” Functional, but not poetic. Or the Simon and Garfunkel song “I will lay me down/ like a bridge over troubled waters.” (me, the direct object).

It is not just students that confound the one for the other. I was driving back from campus this afternoon–terrific rainstorm! ah! — anyway, I was behind this truck that was some sort of pavement-asphalt-driveway-paving-whatever kind of business. You call them and they come and fix all the winter potholes in your driveway. They had all kinds of interesting text on their truck and since I was behind them, and they were driving very slowly up the hill–they had those concrete mixer like thingies in them–I started reading them. All of it had correct grammar and spelling except the piece de resistance: the image of a buxom blonde sprawled on top of the tar mixer  next to the company name — I am guessing she is their mascot — she is in skimpy light green Spring Break bikini top and bottom legs and arms sort of sprawled out like calling for a hug, and the legend says, “Lay on Top.”  (Yeah yeah yeah we all get the pun and all that. Really, can’t you sell driveway tar without a naked woman?)  If the idea is for the woman calling you to hug her, then it should ideally be “Lie on Top,” as in “Lie on top of me so that I may hug you on top of the asphalt tar mixer” ( made me think immediately about those People Magazine features: “What is the Weirdest Place that You Ever had Sex?”). But if she really means “Lay on Top,” then the verb “lay” should have an object since it is a transitive verb. The immediate object here that I see is the tar for the driveway. “Lay the tar on top of me.”  Tarred. Now we only need the feathers. How quickly sexiness disappears as soon as you pay attention to the text!

Actually, it is not just the asphalt company or undergraduates who use the two verbs interchangeably. Because that is what I am forced to conclude from looking at these things: the two verbs, one transitive, the other intransitive, are used interchangeably, as if they are one and the same. Amazing. Anyway, it is not just the working class that confounds them. Look at Bob Dylan’s song Lay Lady Lay. It should ideally (grammatically) be “Lie Lady Lie.”

“Lay Lady Lay

Lay across my big brass bed”

When we look at the syntax, there is no direct object anywhere. Is this because Bob Dylan does not know English grammar? I don’t think so. He is a monster of syntax and prosody. Prosodically, “lay” makes better assonance than “lie,” because Dylan is aiming for a particular vowel effect: he wants the /ei/ to contrast with /ai/. So we have a series of the /ei/ sounds — lay, lady, lay, lay, across (reduced vowel). Then comes the word with a distinctly different vowel /ai/ in the word “my.” This is the word of emphasis in this measure. It is the most important word in the measure. The “Lady” can be anyone–but the big brass bed is  “mine.”  The emphasis would be lost if the vowel was used earlier in “Lie Lady Lie/ Lie across my big brass bed.” It sounds so bad.  Listen to the consonance and alliteration of the lines. The perfectly balanced /l/ sounds that start the measure, and the /b/ sounds that end the bar. What a songster monster! Don’t you just love Bob Dylan? Some day when I have time I will do a syntactic and prosodic analysis of all of Dylan’s lyrics.

Look at that other gorgeous song, the song to be played at my funeral (grammatically correct) —

“Lay down your weary tune (NP) lay down

Lay down the song (NP) you strum”

Even combined with the particle “down,” Dylan uses the transitive verb “lay” here correctly — we can see the objects “tune,” and “the song,” — two beautiful NPs.

So I have to assume that the two verbs are used interchangeably. Amazing.

Case in point: “Lay down Sally.” If used transitively, then this phrase means, “someone, please lay down Sally” (Sally is the object NP). But if you are asking said Sally to plonk down with you, then the correct sentence should be “Lie down Sally.” But later on in the same song, Eric Clapton uses the same verb (grammatically) correctly, “Lay your worries down,” (“your worries,” Object NP).

So it is not that these folks don’t know the difference between the two verbs; they have made a mash of the two. How very interesting.

July 16th update: While on the subject of the bard, here is some related news about a new volume of songs coming out. I don’t know any of the musicians mentioned who will be singing the bard’s words, except Elvis Costello, a fine guitar player–and I vaguely remember seeing Mumford and Sons at a Grammy show sometime ago–they are not really my kind of music, but they were okay–but all these other people, I have no idea who they are. I hope it is a good album. I like T Bone Burnett’s music direction a lot–Oh Brother Where Art Thou is just fantastic. Dylan sings so well now; I absolutely loved Full Moon and Empty Arms!




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