Friday, 12 August 2011

Lie and Lay

In an article in the travel section on August 11, 2011, the writer describes one of the deals of the day:

Travelling at highway speeds in a wind-powered go-cart.... Who’s it for? Those who would rather careen down a sandy beach than lay on it.

This is a double whammy for the Globe and Mail.

Now the second fault is a common but a serious one: the confusion of the verbs "to lie" and "to lay". The first verb is intransitive; the second, transitive. The first doesn't take a direct object; the second does. I lie on the beach, but I lay my towel on the sand. In other words, you have to lay something, even if it's an egg. When we speak of hens laying, the egg is the understood object.

Every English teacher has spent time on these verbs, and the lesson should have been learned by the writers and the editors of our national newspaper. 

The principal parts of these verbs are as follows: Today I lie on the beach, yesterday I lay on the beach, in the past I have lain on the beach; and, Today I lay my towel on the sand, yesterday I laid my towel on the sand, in the past I have laid my towel on the sand. Confusion has probably arisen because the past tense of “to lie” is the same as the present tense of “to lay”. You hear the mistake almost every day: “Go and lay down” instead of “Go and lie down.

The verb “to lie” i.e., "to tell a lie” is a different verb altogether: Today I lie, yeserday I lied, in the past I have lied.

Careen and Career
In the same sentence, the writer has confused two other verbs as well: “to careen” and “to career”.

The verb "careen" comes from the Latin word for "keel". Captain Cook careened his ship on the beach after striking the Great Barrier Reef, i.e., he laid it on its side, and exposed the keel in order to repair the hull. Or, in a related sense, a drunken man might careen from side to side, almost keeling over.

The verb “to career” means to move swiftly in an uncontrolled way as in "The car went careering off down the track", and comes originally from a Latin word meaning  “a wheeled carriage”.  This is surely the meaning intended in the sentence, and so it should read:

 “Who’s it for? Those who would rather career down a sandy beach than lie on it."


  1. What gets me is that you'd think that anyone writing for the Globe would automatically double check potential mine fields like this. What could possibly make a writer look dumber than making a mistake over 'lie' and 'lay'. And coast to coast at that.

    As for 'career'. I used to confuse these until I heard a lyric in a Stephen Sondheim song from "Follies" titled "I'm Still Here" which features the line:

    "then you career from career to career"

    1. I love that line from Steven Sondheim. Are you still receiving these posts? With so much time on my hands, I’ve started up again. I’m also collecting them for a book. These days, with the advent of self-publishing, any idiot can write a book.