People Lie, Things Lay

Not two paragraphs into a great article on why some people (like myself) just can’t seem to achieve a runner’s high (or love exercising, period), and I have come across one of my biggest pet peeves: an author or editor who doesn’t seem to understand that things, ideas, concepts, clues–lay. They don’t lie. They can’t lie. They’re not people. They’re not living, breathing beings.

Let me explain.

The example here from Ask Healthy Living: Why Don’t I Get a Runner’s High?, by Sarah Klein, on Huffington Post, reads: “The first clue lies in exercise selection.” A clue, here, is a concept. It can’t lie, as in tell a lie, nor can it lie, as in put itself in motion to take a rest or nap.

Talk to any English or grammar teacher worth her salt, and she’ll probably start to help you understand this lay/lie conundrum by laying terms on you like “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs to explain why Sarah’s sentence is wrong. Your eyes, of course, will roll back into you head, and a glazed look will come over your face. You’ll smile. You’ll listen, but you won’t hear a thing–just like back in sixth grade. It is true, though, that if you can, one, recall those words from your distant schooldays, and two, remember what they mean, you probably won’t ever find yourself making this mistake.

You see, “transitives,” to get back to the teacher’s explanation, need objects to make actions make sense. “Moved,” for instance, is a transitive verb. For “moved” to make sense, you’d need to know what was moved, the “what” being what you’re trying to communicate (your sentence). “He moved the car into the garage.” See how that worked? Something was taken and manipulated.

“Intransitives” don’t need objects. “The sun rises.” “Rises” is an intransitive verb. The sun doesn’t need anything to be manipulated to help it rise, it just does it on its own.

So, back to Sarah’s sentence and lay/lie. How should it have been corrected? It should have read: “The first clue is in exercise selection.” Why? Because a discerning a clue is a brain function, so a clue is in the category of a thing. A thought process. No wires or cranes or hardware needed.

Now, if you count yourself among those who have trouble with choosing lay and lie, you’re not alone. Sarah aside, rarely is there a show on the History Channel, National Geographic, or Discovery Channel where within the first few sentences, a narrator (not his fault, he’s reading a script) tries to explain how a reason “lies” somewhere. It drives me out of my mind. Even the great Bob Dylan got it wrong when he penned the title and song, Lay, Lady, Lay. For his lady to do what his song is asking, she’d have to have an out-of-body experience, grab herself by the shoulders, and physically lay herself down on that big brass bed.

To help you remember which word to use remember, use one of these:

People lie; things lay.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

If it breathes, it lies; everything else lays.

Lie down to rest; lay the blanket on top of yourself.

“Lay, Lady, Lay,” by Bob Dylan, should have been “Lie, Lady, Lie.”

“Transitive” is like “tangible,” so it needs an object, so your choice is “lay”. “Intransitive” is like “invisible,” so your choice is “lie.”




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