Monday, 22 June 2020

Laid and Lain

When the New York Times makes a grammatical mistake, it’s a subtle one.

When Mr. Ashe died in 1993, he was lain in state at the Executive Mansion in Richmond.

Now the Globe and Mail has been known to confuse the verbs “to lie" and "to lay", but more blatantly:

She (a tiger) was tranquillized, placed in a snare and forced to lay in wait as the famously tardy leader (Vladimir Putin) got to the site.

The tiger, had she not been tranquillized, would have protested that she had been forced to lie in wait.

And even the BBC, in a blazing headline:

Hong Kong protesters laying low following mass arrests

No, the protesters were lying low.

Just to remind you of the difference between the two verbs: “to lie” is intransitive, i.e., it can’t take an object, you can lie down, but you can’t lie something down. For that you need the transitive verb “to lay”. (Hens lay, course, seemingly intransitively, but they lay an egg. “Egg” is always understood.)

I lay my towel on the beach, and I lie on the towel.

And the principal parts can be laid out as follows:

Today, I lie on the beach; yesterday, I lay on the beach; in the past I have lain on the beach.

Today I lay my towel on the beach; yesterday I laid my towel on the beach; in the past I have laid my towel on the beach.

Now, to return to that great American tennis player, Arthur Ashe: the verb is “to lie” (in state), and the past participle is “lain”. We could say that he has lain in state, but not was lain in state, because the verb is Intransitive, and cannot exist in the passive voice. Nor could we say that he was laid in state, because lying in state is something you do but you can’t have done to you. He could be laid to rest, but not laid in state. It’s a very complicated explanation, but with a very simple solution:

When Mr. Ashe died in 1993, he lay in state at the Executive Mansion in Richmond.


And in case you need an explanation of the active and passive voice: 

With the verb in the active voice, the subject does something to the object: 

The boy kicks the ball.

In the passive voice, the object becomes the subject and has something done to it:

The ball is kicked by the boy.

The passive voice is to be avoided. Avoid the passive voice, where possible. But that’s another story.

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