To lay, or to lie—that is the question . . .

09 Feb

And this is the answer: Hens lay—people lie.

The misuse of lay and lie is one of my pet peeves, perhaps the pettiest and peeviest of all.

We hear the verbs misused in every venue—we see it printed in our daily newspapers and other periodicals, and we hear it on radio, on television and in everyday conversations. Medics arriving at an accident scene will invariably tell the injured to lay down, lay still. The medic may report to his home station that he found the injured person laying in a ditch beside the road—and the operator may ask him to repeat the victim’s location by saying, “Repeat, please—where is the victim laying?” As much as I detest repeating myself, I will now repeat myself:

Hens lay—people lie.

Remember when we learned to conjugate verbs? We memorized word groups containing the present, past and future tenses of verbs. The verb to lie, as in lie down, is conjugated as lie, lay, lain—I lie down today, I lay down yesterday, and  by this time tomorrow I will have lain down again. This conjugation is used to reflect the position of something in repose, whether alive or dead, whether animate or inanimate, whether animal, vegetable or mineral and whether prostrate or supine.

A quick explanation here on prostrate versus supine may be in order, just in the highly unlikely possibility that one or more viewers may be confused by the difference between prostrate and supine. Prostrate means lying on one’s stomach (face down), and supine means lying on one’s back (face up).

Special note: Some people sometimes tend to confuse the term prostrate with prostate. The first refers to position—the second is “a gland found at the neck of the bladder in male mammals.” I remember a sentence in a novel that read, “He lay prostate on the altar of Mammon.” The name Mammon, of course, refers to wealth, something regarded as evil, an object of worship and devotion. Medieval writers took Mammon as the name of the devil of covetousness. I suspect that the misspelling of prostrate was a typo, an error made way back in the days before spellcheckers came into use. There is a truth to be learned here—spellcheckers are not infallible.

The verb to lie also refers to truthfulness (or the lack thereof), and is conjugated as follows: lie, lied, lied—I lie today (or I am lying, the gerund form of lie), I lied yesterday, and by this time tomorrow I will have lied again.

The verb to lay also has two very different meanings, as does the verb to lie. It can refer to the hen’s ability to lay an egg (lay, laid, laid), or it may be used to place or put something, also conjugated as lay, laid and laid. Rather that saying “Put (or place) it on the table,” we can say “Lay it on the table.” We can then legitimately say that we laid it on the table, and that by this time tomorrow we will have laid another on the table.

I suppose that a hen could lie down, but in my experience they only sit—or stand, of course. I have never seen a hen lie. However, I have heard hens lie. When I was a child, in a time shrouded in the mists of the past, a cackling hen usually meant that an egg had just been laid. That sound would send me running to the hen house for a quick visual scan of the nests to locate and purloin the egg, still warm after its journey from darkness to the bright light of day, then a quick run to the general store one-quarter mile distant to initiate and complete a business transaction. A dozen eggs in those days cost 60 cents, so I would exchange the egg for a nickel’s worth of something sweet, the buyer’s choice of items ranging from candy to cookies to a Coke. Yes, at that time the green Mae West-shaped bottle of Coca-Cola cost just five cents.

As regards that hen cackling, the cackling did not always indicate that an egg had been laid and was available. There were other situations in which hens cackled. They often cackled when the rooster was in hot pursuit, a cackle engendered by panic or perhaps by anticipation or some alternate feeling. Hens also sometimes cackled shortly after being overtaken by the rooster—whether the cackling indicated pleasure or disappointment is known only by the hen—and the rooster, perhaps. I use the word perhaps because the hen, in any discussion that may have ensued between her and the rooster following their encounter, may have told him things that were somewhat less than truthful, little white lies told so the the rooster would hear that which she knew he wanted, and needed, to hear. Let’s face it, my brothers—it’s well known that some actions of some animals sometimes mirror the actions of humans, both in the psychological sense and the physical sense—they just speak a different language.

A quick application of basic arithmetic to the sale of eggs at sixty cents per dozen:

Armed with the knowledge that twelve of something—anything—equals one dozen, then dividing the cost of a dozen eggs (sixty cents) by the number of eggs in a dozen (twelve) would show that one egg had a value of  five cents, and one might wonder how the store’s proprietor could make a profit. In this instance he was satisfied to break even—he was my uncle, the husband of my mother’s sister, a deeply religious and benevolent man cut down in the prime of his life. He was killed by the actions of a 12-year-old boy, a first-cousin to me and the younger of his two sons.

My cousin’s actions were not deliberate—his father’s death was an accident, avoidable perhaps, but still an unfortunate accident. Unless it sprouts wings and flies (or flees) from my memories and refuses to return, the story of my uncle’s death will be the subject of a future posting.

Stay tuned.


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2 responses to “To lay, or to lie—that is the question . . .

  1. cindydyer

    February 11, 2010 at 2:22 am

    I must say that this is by far my favorite grammar lesson. I try to pay it forward every chance I get, but only when there is an opportune moment to do so. Don’t wanna lose a good friend simply to prove I’m right, do I?

    As you always say, so many people, so little time. I do what I can to make you proud. 🙂

  2. thekingoftexas

    February 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for the comment. I welcome compliments, no matter how true they are. And I am very proud indeed—not proud, necessarily, of anything I do, but very proud of everything you do. So take that!

    I am somewhat nonplussed by your statement that you would not want to lose a good friend simply to prove that you are right. In my unfettered (and unlettered) opinion, if one loses a good friend just because one proved the good friend wrong, then that friend was not a good one—that kind of friend is universally known as a “fair weather” friend, one that tends to cut and run at the mere hint of foul weather—a good friend would admit the error and voice thanks, and the good friendship would become even gooder!

    We can only do so much—so many errors, so little time. Ce est la guerre! This is war, albeit a war that may not be winnable, but one in which we should stay the course—never retreating, always advancing.

    Hey, I know what you’re thinking—you’re thinking that this comment and this posting is a jumbled series of time-worn cliches, to which I readily admit. My bag of literary tools is somewhat limited, so I do the best I can with what I have.


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