Monday, November 24, 2008

As I lied dying

What's generally termed "confusion"* between lie and lay is widespread and has been for a long time. It's more accurate to say that the semantic space occupied by lie is encroached upon to a large degree by lay, so that one hears things like:

I'm going to lay down.
The girls like to lay out in the sun.

Part of the problem is surely that the past-tense forms add to the, um, confusion. The verb lay is transitive (to put something into a prone position), and like good transitive verbs in Germanic languages, it follows a regular ("weak") pattern for forming its constituent parts:

present: lay. I'm going to lay the book on the table.
past: laid. Yesterday I laid the book on the table.
participle: laid. All of us have laid books on the table.

(Compare, say, talk.) The verb lie, on the other hand, in the sense of being in a prone position, is intransitive and in the manner of some Germanic verbs, is thus irregular ("strong"):

present: lie. The book lies on the table.
past: lay. Yesterday, the book lay on the table.
participle: lain. The book has lain on the table all day.

(This last sounds odd even to me, so rarely does one hear this conversationally.) It's easy to see that a present-tense lay is easy to confuse with a past-tense lay, for example. And in the world of Germanic weak and strong verbs, if you're going to bet on which form will prevail, the weak form is your better bet by a long shot.

So. Blah-blah. Why am I telling you this? Because Michael B has found such a nice example where this gets really confuddled:

That's when Perkins missed for the second time in the game. He was wide left from 28 yards with 3:24 left in regulation, then missed wide right from 37 in the second overtime. Perkins lied on his back as Martin Stadium erupted at the possibility of a shocking upset.

(Hopefully they haven't fixed this by the time you read it.)

As I say, if you're going to bet on verbs, bet on weak verbs; given half a chance, people will whack a -d onto the end of anything that looks like a verb.

* I adamantly refuse to say that this is "wrong." But then, I would.


Damon Lord said...

I've become used to hearing "led" as a form of the past of "lie".

Before getting up to read this, I led on my bed.

Maybe that's just a regional thing, in South Wales. I've not really thought about it, just thought I'd mention a variant of it I've come across.

Vincent said...

Ah yes. It's a joy to read Huckleberry Finn for many reasons but not least the past-tense forms: catched, clumb, knowed drownded etc.

Fran said...

Please, what do you think about the use of "bored of". I know it's been around for a long time, but it drives me crazy!

WordzGuy said...

@Fran -- I'm the wrong guy to get usage opinions from. I just record what I hear or read that seems novel. In general, non-standard usages (or usages whose standardness is arguable) don't bother me.

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The Ridger, FCD said...

Catched was actually the "real" past tense (per Steven Pinker) and "caught" is a rank upstart ;-)

I've noticed a similar confusion between "rise" and "raise" - lots of hits out there on things like "mist was raising from the river" and "rise me up".

Many of these misused transitives occur with an adverbial, making them somewhat similar to the middle voice, which may explain it. Of course, we may just be losing the distinction.

parlance said...

There was recently a tragic event here in Australia where a paralysed man lay for hours (or days?) in bed beside his dead wife, who had been his carer but died suddenly in the night.

I jumped when I saw the enormous letters of a full-page headline, Man lays beside dead wife, but didn't blog about it because it was such a sad, terrible event.