New Problem with “lay” and “lie”

Poor Greta.

After writing numerous posts on the correct use of the verbs lay and lie, I’m ready to concede that getting everyone to use them “correctly” is a losing battle.

Even if English teachers are teaching the concept, students are not listening.

So many people tell their dogs to “lay down” and describe bodies as “laying in the street” that I feel we’ve reached a tipping point.

Of course, speakers and writers who do perceive the difference between transitive lay and intransitive lie continue to tell their dogs to “lie down” and describe bodies as “lying in the street.”

Until fairly recently, English teachers, professional writers, and PhD-holders in every subject could be numbered among those speakers who understood the difference between intransitive lie, lay, (have) lain and transitive lay, laid, (have) laid.

Not any more. The distinction between these verbs has become as mysterious to most US English-speakers as the difference between who and whom.

Take, for instance, this extract from an article that appeared recently in the Washington Post. The article was co-authored by a professor of Religious Studies and a PhD student in Religious Studies. The article is well worth reading, but I’ll have to admit that the misuse of lay for laid spoiled it a little for me.

The idea that wealth is morally perilous has an impressive philosophical and religious pedigree. Ancient Stoic philosophers railed against greed and luxury, and Roman historians such as Tacitus lay many of the empire’s struggles at the feet of imperial avarice.

The historians laid many of the empire’s struggles at the feet of imperial avarice.

I suspect that the error is a result of a knee-jerk reaction against the word that is so often used where lay would be the correct choice. Here, however, the form required is laid. It should be laid because the sentence is in the past tense.

Present tense: “Please lay the book on the desk before you leave.”
Past tense: “He laid the book on the desk before he left.”

The error of using intransitive past lay as a the past tense of transitive lay is proliferating. Here are examples from three recently published novels:

He tried to unwind by studying the next move in the chess game he was playing Experimentally, he lay the black king on its side and stared at the fallen piece.

No. He laid the black king on its side.

Finally, with a wistful look in his eyes, he lay the sword at his feet and requested I do the same.

No. He laid the sword at his feet.

He lay the annoying notepad down and decided maybe a nap was in order.

No. He laid the annoying notepad down.

What’s a poor English-speaker to do?

The best he can. It’s all a mule can do.

If you even care, you’ll find a review of the difference between the verbs to lay and to lie here.