Laying Bush, and confusion, to rest

“As President George H.W. Bush now lays in state in the U.S. Capitol . . .,” Amna Nawaz intoned on “PBS Newshour” the other night.

Really, PBS? Lays in state? The nation’s grammar nerds cringed. “And was the flag at half-mast?” we may have grumbled. (Maybe it was, somewhere, since Bush had once been a naval officer. A flag flies at half-mast on a ship, but at half-staff on a flagpole.)

So what’s the problem? Nawaz should have said lies, not lays. It’s a common error, even among native English-speakers. Overall it was not PBS’s finest newshour: a webpage shown onscreen was headlined “President H.W. Bush to lie in state in Washington, D.C.,” with no George. Let’s hope the teleprompter spelled it Capitol, as I did above, referring to the building — not capital, which means the city.

The difference between lie and lay is simple, once you understand what each means. Lay (“to put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest; set down,” according to Dictionary.com) is a transitive verb, meaning it takes an object.  Lie (“to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position, as on a bed or the ground; recline”) is intransitive and takes no object. When you go to sleep at night, you lie down. Before you do, you may say an old children’s prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” (You are laying down an object: yourself.)

Part of what confuses people is that the past tense of lie is lay. Both are irregular verbs, meaning they form past tense in a way other than adding -ed (or -d if the verb already ends in e). Their three basic forms — base verb (simple present), simple past and past participle — are:

lie, lay, lain (present participle: lying)

lay, laid, laid (present participle: laying)

To confuse you further, the other verb lie — the one most commonly used in reference to Washington — is a regular verb: lie, lied, lied.

Here’s a chart to help you understand when to use which.

Present

Past

lie

I need to lie down.

I’m lying down.

I lay down and took a nap.

I was lying down when you called.

lay

Lay the book on my desk.

Would you lay (set) the table for dinner?

I laid the book on your desk.

Have you already laid the table?

 

So, after lying in state, Bush was laid to rest — a euphemism for burial.

Now, some examples from student work:

 

New York City rent regulation lays on the hands of state government.

No, the writer meant it lies in (idiom) the state’s hands. Laying on hands is an idiom meaning religious healing through touch.

 

One day I realized the vacant place in my grandfather’s bed, where we grandchildren used to lay down to listen to him tell stories, came from my grandmother’s absence.

This writer, too, meant lie down.

 

When the ambulance arrived, Mohamed gently laid the boy on the stretcher.

Correct!

 

As heads of state file into the building, a performer lays on the ground with fake blood on his head and a sign that says Maduro has blood on his hands.

Again, lies is correct. Similarly:

I have seen children, first graders, who kicked another first grader with their feet against his head when he was already laid on the ground.

While they may have laid him there, the writer probably meant he was lying on the ground.

 

As the critic lies out in the article, areas such as office, residential or retail properties would gain benefits from this revamp.

This writer means lays out — a phrasal verb (verb + adverb with an idiomatic meaning) meaning to present.

 

And PBS isn’t the only professional news outlet that makes errors. From The New York Times:

“We actually saw a person laying on a ledge and I don’t know whether he made it not,” Hastings said.

The speaker may have said laying, but writer probably should have cleaned it up to lying.

 

As Stefan Pastis put it so eloquently in Pearls Before Swine:

 

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