Laying and lying: the alleged perfection of Australian English

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John McIntyre writes a column in the Baltimore Sun's online content pages called "Leave it lay" in which he discusses the perennial difficulty of getting students to distinguish the verbs lie and lay in their writing. (See my post Lie or lay? Some disastrously unhelpful guidance for the details of the two horribly intertwined paradigms.) He recommends giving the topic a rest, since teaching it is such a dead loss as regards imparting really valuable information. And a commenter named Tom (the second commenter on the post) immediately pipes up to say this:

The point you make is indeed true, however the example of lie and lay is a curious one. In Australia, the word lie not only survives, but has not become confused with lay in the slightest. The two retain their distinct meanings more or less unabated, forming a sharp contrast to the developments in the US. I would imagine the same would be true of most other English-speaking countries and those learning English as a second language outside the US.

When will people learn that nowadays everyone can fact-check linguistic claims of this sort?

What I did was to search for "lays on the" with the added term to restrict the search to pages served from the Australian domain; and up came about 6,350 results. Some are spurious, sure (like a reference to a company that "lays on the BS pretty thick", which has transitive lay and thus does not confuse the two lexemes), but also an ample supply of examples like these:

Lester Ellis lays on the floor in front of a wall full of trophies.

A teddy bear lays on the window sill of the burnt out room at the scene of the fire.

Lote Tuqiri of the Tigers lays on the ground in pain after a heavy clash.

The line lays on the bottom away from other boats props and the paynter rises more or less straight up to the boat bow from the chain.

These are intransitive occurrences of lay that every English teacher and every prescriptive grammar maven would say are "incorrect". They show the confusion is found on Australian sites just like it is on British and American ones. One could go on to gather more examples; there seems to be an ample supply.

How many would it take to convince Tom that he is utterly wrong about Australian English? I have no idea. We could probably find enough. But the deeper problem is that people simply do not understand that their intuitively-based reports concerning what they see and hear and read in their country are often drastically mistaken. It is possible today to check these things empirically with some expectation of reasonable success. But people (and this includes linguists!) still tend to think that they have veridical intuitions concerning what occurs and what does not in their linguistic milieu. Here at Language Log we have been wrong so often that we have learned to check.

[Hat tip: thanks to Mike Pope for spotting this.]


  1. Jongseong Park said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    I was kind of expecting some reference to the fact that outsiders often claim to hear the vowel of 'lay' in Broad Australian pronunciation as the vowel of 'lie'. There's a joke in there somewhere, but I'm too tired at the moment.

  2. John Lawler said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    Well, probably he's right; there's no hope.
    But the paradigm of
    lie, sit, rise: intransitive irregular body verbs
    constrasted with their respective causatives
    lay, set, raise: transitive regular body verbs
    is occasionally helpful. Looked at this way, the spelling is our friend.

    A modest example of just how confusing this can be is here.

  3. John Cowan said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    Alas, set is irregular; its past tense and past participle are set. But it is at least weak, like its fellows, whereas their counterparts are all strong.

  4. Heather said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    I have a theory why people get lie and lay confused, and if you all have already discussed this theory and proven it incorrect, my apologies for the repetition. I have not been around the Language Log universe for long.

    Lie is intransitive. Lay is transitive and needs an object. I think people get this. But what if the mistakes are coming from when people are using the transitive verb and implying the object?

    For example: I can tell a child, "Lie down on the bed." I could also say, "Lay yourself down on the bed." Growing up in a southern family, the latter construction was actually the more common. And both are correct, right? The first has no object. The latter has an object ("yourself"). Now through laziness or efficiency (or temper), "Lay yourself down on the bed" could quickly evolve into, "Lay yourself down. Lay down. Lay down!" with the object getting lost along the way and is now implied rather than stated. Granted, losing the object means the speaker should switch to an intransitive verb and we do have one readily available for this situation ("lie"), but speakers are sticking with "lay".

    I guess my question/theory comes down to, Can you imply an object for a transitive verb?

  5. Henning Makholm said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    I guess my question/theory comes down to, Can you imply an object for a transitive verb?

    I would say that is done all the time without notice or fanfare. (Though some would probably prefer complicating the vocabulary by positing the existence of a separate but homophonic intransitive verb for each otherwise grammatical example we could think of. This preserves the opportunity for later prescriptivist peeving because then one can claim that some particular verb does not have an intransitive counterpart).

    The interesting thing about lie/lay is that when they are used in their most common senses, the object of the transitive verb becomes the subject of the intransitive one: "John lays the book on the table" causes "The book lies on the table".

    A somewhat similar relation can also happen with intransitive uses of some other transitive verbs: "This book sells well", "My code won't compile", etc. The same usage shows up occasionally in Danish, sometimes to be condemned as an Anglicism by peevers. I'm not sure how new it is in English.

    By the way, I think "lie down" is a special case. It can be used (as in your examples) in a punctual aspect, whereas most other uses of "lie" are inherently durative. That in itself could cause "lie down" to become "lay down" (since "lay" is always punctual) independently of the greater lie/lay merger.

  6. A mathematician said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    To be really convincing, shouldn't you give us some comparative numbers? The fact that some writers on .au domains have sometimes used 'lay' like that doesn't disprove the assertion that

    The two retain their distinct meanings more or less unabated

    (my emphasis).

    Taking up my own challenge, I get about 706,000 hits for 'lies on the' in the .au domain (about 100 times as many). By contrast, for the whole internet I get 818,000 hits for 'lays on the' and 52,700,000 for 'lies on the' (about 64 times as many). So the phenomenon does seem to be of the same order of magnitude in Australia, but significantly less common.

    As a Brit, I wasn't conscious that there was any confusion about 'lay' and 'lie' till I came to live in the US. So I did the same searches in the .uk domain, and got 12,600 hits for 'lays on the' and 466,000 for 'lies on the', suggesting that it's more common in the UK than anywhere else! This is completely at odds with my own personal experience – perhaps it's to do with some awkward confounding factor like dialect or class?

    Indeed, looking at the results more closely, I see that most of the hits for 'lays on the' are things like 'McConnells Lays On The VIP Treatment'. And the top hit, 'John McKenna, circled, lays on the ground' from an article in the Daily Mail, seems to have been lifted word-for-word from an American blog.

    I'm beginning to wonder whether this 'counting google hits' idea proves anything at all…

    [You're absolutely right to wonder. It is indeed the case that counting raw Google hits simply is not a scientific research method (I notice you write from CalTech, where I would expect mathematical seriousness of this kind). I, of course, did no counting at all (though I did mention the approximate size of the pool of raw hits for lays on the in Australian pages): I merely noted that these days one can instantly verify the occurrence of who-knows-how-many occurrences of intransitive lay on Australian pages.

    That was because my point has nothing to do with the statistical disparities there might be between the varieties of English on different continents. It is an informal methodological observation: language is not a matter on which your off-the-cuff impressions can count as evidence; claims about language can be checked empirically (and these days, very easily). Your point is that they can also be assessed statistically, and I agree. But don't imply that I did a statistical investigation (even a small and approximate one) incompetently. I did not statistical investigation at all, and did not intend to. When Language Log does statistical investigations (and Mark Liberman has published hundreds of them here) they are done properly, with graphs and significance tests. A corpus-based experiment to see whether the overlapping use of lie and lay is more frequent in America than elsewhere remains to be done (as far as I know).

    One other thing: you refer to "confusion about 'lay' and 'lie'", but I don't think that's actually what's going on. Hardly anyone says *She just lied there. What happens is that intransitive uses of lay replace what would have been opportunities for the use of the intransitive verb lie, especially in the present tense. But again, that's an initial hunch, and it needs to be thoroughly checked. —GKP]

  7. tpr said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    I have observed first hand that lay is supplanting lie for a lot of English speakers in Australia, so I agree it's complete tosh. I can also confirm that Australia is a gratingly patriotic country.

  8. peter said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    Not to mention the fact that a claim that appears to be about the English language as spoken in Australia could not ever logically be refuted by evidence arising from texts displayed on web-sites. Or do linguists not distinguish between spoken and written language any more?

  9. groki said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    It is possible today to check these things empirically with some expectation of reasonable success. But people (and this includes linguists!) still tend to think that they have veridical intuitions concerning what occurs and what does not in their linguistic milieu.

    yeah, it's by using the tools and strategies of our "linguistic milieu" that we "tend to think": so we (over-)confidently believe it's true what we believe is true.

    the culture is still learning how to use this Internet thingy.

    @Heather: Can you imply an object for a transitive verb? "I'll say!"

  10. James said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    I'm not sure I understand A Mathematician's criticism. If I claimed,

    In stark contrast to Australians, North Americans do not get skin cancer. We remain more or less skin cancer-free.

    that would be false (and pretty stupid). I could not defend my claim by pointing out that Australians get skin cancer at a higher rate than Americans. So why is it any defense of the false (and pretty stupid) claim about Strine to point out that Australians maintain the lie/lay distinction more than, say, Americans?

    To Peter:
    Usage on the web is certainly evidence about spoken language — don't you think? Of course there are some differences, but it's a good first look; for such purposes googling is a coarse tool but a useful one.

  11. groki said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    @Henning Makholm: (since "lay" is always punctual)

    how about the on-the-lam meaning of "I need to lay low for a while"?

  12. Henning Makholm said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    "Lay low" had momentarily escaped my attention. I recognize it as idiomatic, but have trouble connecting it logically to other senses of "lay".

  13. A mathematician said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 6:47 pm


    I'm not trying to defend or attack any claim about Australian or any other sort of English.

    My criticism is that the number 6,350 is meaningless without something to compare it to. (Unless you think that one single intransitive usage of 'lay' on any .au website refutes Reggie's (or is it Tom's?) claim, in which case, why give the number at all?)

  14. Bloix said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

    Isn't the problem that the past tense of lie is lay?
    Lie, lay, lain.
    Lay, laid, laid.

    These are so similar that there can't possibly be any information conveyed by maintaining the difference. Apparently the reason to do so is as a shibboleth to distinguish the educated from the great unwashed.

    [Bloix, I did refer you to my at 2004 post on this topic, which elaborates this point in detail; but you didn't read it. —GKP]

  15. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    I'll agree with A mathematician's idea here, though I got slightly different results:
    For .au: 709,000 for "lies on the" vs. 6,260 for "lays on the"
    No domain restriction: 16,600,000 for "lies on the" vs. 907,000 for "lays on the"
    The ratios are 113:1 and 18:1, respectively. Maybe someone can correct me, but to me that says that your average Australian is more likely that your average English-speaking netizen to retain the distinction.

    It seems some commenters disagree with this whole line of questioning, so I'll frame it how I see it. If I say that Americans as a whole are cancer-free, I think that's a valid statement even if 6,260 Americans have cancer at time X, because that's an extremely low proportion. Numbers mean almost nothing; it's proportions that tell us about the prevalance of a disease or a linguistic construction.

  16. Danmcc said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

    Without wanting to muddy the waters too far in relation to Strine, I wouldn't go as far as Reggie (or Tom's) comment to say that nobody ever conflates the two words in Australian common usage, as evidenced by your numbers. I do find the following observation from the article

    I feel obliged every semester to go over lie and lay, but the blunt fact is that nearly all my students are just baffled. They do not hear a distinction; they do not encounter it in speech or in much of the writing they encounter.

    to be implausible if taken about an Australian university lecture theatre. As someone not too long out of university, I would be surprised if Australian students were so perplexed about the distinction – as I would expect many would maintain it in both written and spoken English.

  17. Craig said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    Isn't "I need to lay low for a while" just another example of confusing the two? It seems to me that "lie low" would be the "correct" phrasing. Idioms are just as subject to these mixups as anything – and may in fact contribute to their gaining currency, now that I think about it.

  18. Adrian Morgan said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    In my opinion, all we have here is a little hyperbole.

    In his post, John McIntyre's wrote: "nearly all my students are just baffled. They do not hear a distinction; they do not encounter it in speech or in much of the writing they encounter."

    Given that context, I think the essence of Tom's comment is true. I think it's inconceivable that the above quotation could be said of a class of dominant-culture Australian students. What Tom says about "not confused in the slightest" etc is less true, and probably should not have been said, but I regard it merely as hyperbolic.

    I regard "utterly wrong" (Geoff Pullum, above) the same way.

    I'd be more interested in learning to what extent JEM's statement quoted above is applicable to different parts/demographics of the US and elsewhere.

  19. Mark F. said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    Perhaps the difference between here and Australia is just that it's not much remarked upon there. If you're not looking for an error, sometimes you don't see it. (Assuming you even want to call it an error, but I think there are some contexts where you can.)

  20. Mr. Fnortner said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    To what extent does compiling and teaching lists of "easily confused" words exacerbate the problem? Could teaching lie/lay, imply/infer, home/hone, and on and on, result in creation or perpetuation of some amount of confusion?

  21. backofbeyond said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    @Heather: Can you imply an object for a transitive verb? "I'll say!"

    And I have hens who lay daily and others only four times a week. BTW, I also have a setting hen who has been setting for two weeks now.

  22. Boudica said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    I think there are two problems here. One as mentioned above is the past tense of "lie" is "lay" which confuses the heck out of people. The other is the verb "lie" meaning to tell a falsehood. Why have the word "lie" with 2 totally different meanings? Use "lie" for telling a falsehood and "lay" for all transitive and intransitive "laying". Much simpler. (I do differentiate and use "lie" and "lay" in the correct grammatical senses…but I don't see the point in doing so in the long term development of the language.)

    [This third verb, lie meaning "tell a deliberate untruth", was also dealt with in the 2004 post that I referred to, which people do not appear to have read. —GKP]

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    John (Lawler)—don't forget the black sheep pair (or is it the Smerdyakov?) of that paradigm: rot and ret.

  24. dirk alan said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    love you aussies – charming.

  25. iching said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    As an Aussie from Melbourne I would have to accuse Tom, the commenter, of "laying on the BS pretty thick". My impression is that the lie/lay distinction is very commonly the cause of confusion here. But relative to elsewhere in the anglosphere? I don't know. And I would agree with John McIntyre that the whole topic is extremely yawn inducing.

  26. A mathematician said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:20 am

    I wanted to report back on a very short investigation I just conducted while waiting for the baby to fall asleep.

    When I search for 'lays on the' in .uk domains on google, I get three intransitive uses on the first page, all of which are captions to photographs in newspapers: one in the Mail ('John McKenna, circled, lays on the ground…'), one in the Telegraph ('An Israeli woman lays on the floor and covers the heads of her two children…') and one in the Guardian (' A beggar lays on the ground as he hopes for alms…').

    Because I suffer from insatiable curtiosity, I googled these captions and in each case found a very similar or identical one that had been posted earlier on an American website, respectively, Fox News and the Washington Post. (In fact, in the latter two instances I think the photos came from AP.)

    The upshot is that I still hold to my preconception that intransitive 'lay' is much more common in American than British English (I have no opinion about Australian English), and I'm now extremely sceptical that counting google hits can tell you anything about relative frequencies in different dialects.

    [See my comment above. It's a good point that these were photo captions borrowed from American websites. But what I was thinking was that even if such material was getting around internationally, the fact of being published on Australian websites without correction would imply that no one noticed. And anyway, even if my carelessly selected top few hits were borrowed, that hardly tells us anything about the issue at hand. Switch to "lays in" and look more widely on Australian sites. Take, for example, "The ultimate biological value of a fragmented site lays in the strength of its habitat links" (found at That's from a science information site about an Australian habitat link maintained by LaTrobe University. How on earth did it get by? Because there are Australians who use lay for lie, that's how. Tom the commenter is prima facie wrong.

    Anyway, the mere fact that we're talking about this as an empirical issue means that my work is done! —GKP]

  27. Christian DiCanio said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:55 am

    @Heather, I think you have a good point. In fact, a google search for "is laying down" vs. "is lying down" produces 237,000 hits for the former and 321,000 hits for the latter (I've also excluded the word "grammar" from the search results so as to not include the meta-linguistic posts.)

    The argument by A Mathematician is that since one still observes a large preference for "lies on the" compared to "lays on the", one might argue that for many people, a semantic distinction is maintained. However, I would argue that verb particle constructions like "lie down ~ lay down" introduce (or reiterate) ambiguity into the semantic domain. Our semantic categories are not uniquely tied to single construction types.

  28. Joe said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:52 am

    I just wanted to second some of the comments GKP has made in response to Mathematician. I think GKP's point is that "nowadays everyone can fact-check linguistic claims of this sort," meaning that anyone can – and should – do a rough Google search rather than rely on intutition when they say NO ONE confuses such and such, or NO ONE would say such and such, or language X doesn't have a word for Y, etc. These kind of claims about language are the equivalent of saying that a country X has or doesn't have a monarch.

    Comparing the relative frequency of a given construction across particular varieties of English, however, is not something everyone can do. It takes specialized training to be able to do it correctly, and even then specialists will disagree about the finer points of methodology and how generalizable the findings of a particular study are (just as they do in any scientific endeavor). Notice all the careful qualifications Mark makes in his Breakfast Experiments™ (and he certainly knows what he is doing).

    So it important to distinguish the claims about language that anyone can fact-check, from the claims about language that can only be verified through careful linguistic research.

  29. Chom said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    The prescriptive rule that lay is transitive and lie is intransitive is not descriptive of reality. Native speakers are by definition correct in their usage. Further, this is hardly a new phenomenon. The OED indicates a number of intransitive usage dating fairly far back for lay.

  30. Joyce Melton said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 5:53 am

    Australians being Australians, how sure are we that this post was not meant as humor? Anyone want to lay odds?

  31. iching said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    Fair shake of the sauce bottle, mate. Are you having a go at us Aussies? We are not all larrikins you know.

  32. a different Tom said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 6:54 am

    @A mathematician:

    As a Brit, I wasn't conscious that there was any confusion about 'lay' and 'lie' till I came to live in the US… perhaps it's to do with some awkward confounding factor like dialect or class?

    Seems likely; in my personal British experience, the confusion was standard among my primary school classmates (working-class, East Anglian dialect) but was mostly not present in the writing/speech of my more middle-class, closer-to-the-standard peers at university. Of course I don't have numbers.

  33. vireya said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 7:48 am

    Poor Tom! I thought he was correct (and commented to that effect on the original post). The explanation must be that the people I mix with are generally better educated than the Australians who write things on the internet!

  34. iching said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:36 am

    I am surprised no-one has mentioned Bob Dylan yet.

  35. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    @a different Tom: "working-class, East Anglian dialect"

    Cuu't'ell! Thaas cus they're all a pleyin' with their dickies.


  36. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    Instances of transitive "lie" are not unknown. My late MIL would instruct me to put a grandkid of hers into a bed by saying "lie him down." Her daughter (my wife, obviously) also adheres to that usage. As we approach our 44th wedding anniversary, I have concluded that my decision not to corret her is one of the main reasons why we'll have a 44th wedding anniversary.

  37. Tom said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    Gday mob I'm the actual Tom. It's been fascinating reading your comments; I never expected a blog post to be made about my comment, nor such interest be shown in it.

    I must say that when I said the two terms hadn't been confused in Australia I was talking merely from my own experience. I have no doubt that for some people, somewhere in Australia, the word "lay" is used instead of "lie". Vireya's suggestion that this is due to the people I generally converse with makes sense; I come from a well educated and generally affluent part of Sydney. Nevertheless, I would expect that if many people in Sydney used "lay" instead of "lie" that I would hear it through the radio or television. I cannot remember hearing any Australian, known to me or not, confuse the terms. I am fairly certain that if I did I would notice and remember it because this is the case when I hear or read Americans doing it on imported television programs or the internet.

    If anybody else lives in Sydney and believes the practice to be prevalent I would be honestly surprised. It is possible that other cities do it and not Sydney (although I would have expected better of Melbourne, iching).

    The use of Google to determine how common the dintinction between the words is ignored is utterly ridiculous. I won't go into any detail because it's largely been covered above, but the fact that foreign content could be posted on the .au domain in so many different ways (copying, commenting, etc) utterly invalidates it.

  38. Robert Coren said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    I am (perhaps unreasonably) seriously irritated by a persistent hypercorrection that I've been seeing in written fiction for quite a few years now: "lay" as the past tense for the transitive verb ("He lay his hand on my knee", etc.). I'm assuming this is the result of folks having been so thoroughly scolded by their English teachers for saying/writing things like "I laid on my bed" that they've concluded that "laid" is never correct. I suspect that the sexual association with "laid" is a contributing factor.

  39. Bloix said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    Anyone who has read Cormac McCarthy is familiar with an unusual transitive verb: sit. His characters sit their horses. "Rawlins turned and sat his horse in the rain and looked at John Grady." "He sat his horse and picked his teeth and watched the work without comment." "Travis walked over to where Billy sat his horse."
    I've always wondered whether this is gen-u-wine cowboy talk or if McCarthy made it up.

  40. language hat said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    The transitive use has been standard for half a millennium:

    1542 UDALL Erasm. Apoph. 276 He would not suffre any bodye to sitte hym, or gette up on his backe. 1561 T. HOBY tr. Castiglione's Courtyer IV. (1577) Sivb, Hee that sitteth not well a horse. 1613 SHAKES. Hen. VIII, IV. ii. 16 He.. grew so ill He could not sit his Mule. […] 1762 WESLEY Jrnl. 30 Mar., It was difficult to sit our horses. 1814 JANE AUSTEN Mansf. Park II. ii. 33 Poor old coachman would attend us.. though he was hardly able to sit the box on account of the rheumatism. […] 1891 N. GOULD Double Event 230 Wells could not sit the horse better himself. 1977 New Yorker 11 July 19/1 She sits a bicycle with the feckless insouciance of an eleven-year-old gliding down a country lane.

  41. groki said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    When will people learn that nowadays everyone can fact-check linguistic claims of this sort?


    your critiques of people's intuitive-but-wrong linguisticating are both entertaining and educational, so thank you. part of that education is how in fact you fact-check things like this.

    if you haven't already done one*, how about a how-to post on LL specifically devoted to the simple search methods anybody could use to (dis)confirm linguistic hunches/pronouncements they are tempted to make?

    I know, in all your copious free time. but I don't mean a comprehensive "using teh Google" tome, just the kind of (again, simple) things that are useful in a linguistics context: things like +"lays on the" giving different results than lays on the; how to limit the search to particular domains, internet or otherwise; which corpora to check; what to watch out for in interpreting ghits; etc.

    I don't doubt it would be quite useful to many–especially the naive linguisticators.

    *and if there is already a post like this on LL, I apologize for being such a turkey and missing it.

  42. RichardM Buck said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    Following on from a different Tom's comment:

    I grew up in southern England identifying as middle-class, and went to public school and Oxbridge. No-one I know confuses 'lie' and 'lay'.

    I teach Adult Literacy classes — which necessarily have to have a prescriptive slant — mostly to (working class) soldiers: almost no-one I teach is aware that 'lie' and 'lay' are/were distinct words, even when I illustrate my claims with amusing comments about **going out and getting lain :)

    I know anecdote isn't the singular of data, but from my experience I would have said that the two have largely fallen together in most dialects other than Standard English.

  43. Karen said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Many equestrians – not just cowboys – "sit their horses". They have "a good (or bad) seat", and they don't "sit on" the horse. Jargon? Maybe. Howard Pyle and Jack London used it (a quick Google, first page of hits). So – "unusual"? To non-riders, perhaps. Made-up by Mr McCarthy? Absolutely not.

  44. Richard M Buck said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    @a different Tom:

    I grew up in southern England identifying as middle class, and went to public school and Oxbridge: no-one I know confuses 'lie' and 'lay'.

    As part of my job I teach Adult Literacy classes— necessarily prescriptive in nature, to some extent — mostly to (working class) soldiers: almost no-one I teach is aware that 'lie' and 'lay' are/were distinct, even when I illustrate my claims with amusing examples about how they wouldn't go out of an evening hoping to **get lain ;)

    I know anecdote isn't the singular of data, but in my experience I'd say that 'lie' and 'lay' have largely fallen together for speakers of most British dialects other than Standard English. I think that even the existence of 'laid' and 'lain' side-by-side doesn't make much of difference: I suspect it's accepted that they're different parts of the same word, used in different contexts, much like (say) 'melted' and 'molten'.

  45. Joe (same as one above) said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    Unfortunately, I will not have ready access to a library for a while, and I don't own the book, but I checked to see on Amazon preview of *The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage* whether there was any discussion of the lie/lay. Here is what I found: "The reason why people confuse these verbs [lie and lay] is clear enough when you set their principal parts side by side." It then says, "the common colloquial trend is to use lay (and laid) instead of lie (and lay/lain), and gives as an example "If you lay down for a while."

    So I suspect that the confusion is pretty widespread down under as well (if I had access to Australian Corpus of English, I would double-check there, but from what I understand the Guide is based on corpora of Australian English, and if its says that is a common colloquial trend I'm inclined to accept that judgement)

  46. wally said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    " Hardly anyone says *She just lied there. "

    If by hardly anyone you mean 42000 google hits.

  47. Ignoramus said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    'Twas the politicians that confuse the issue.
    If ye lay down with/on flees then do not lie to/with/for them.

  48. Terry Collmann said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    " Hardly anyone says *She just lied there. "

    If by hardly anyone you mean 42000 google hits.

    Wally, I m afraid you've made the basic (but understandable) error of taking at face value the guesstimate Google's algorithms throw up on the first page of a set of search results, qwhen it says "About xxxxx results". Search again for the phrase in quotes "She just lied there", click through to the very last page of results (it won't take long, there will only actually be five) and you'll find the true number of instances of the phrase that Google finds is really only 92. That's "hardly anyone" in everyone's understanding of the expression

  49. bloix said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    Well, I will have to do my research next time. Karen, I ride myself, in a small way, and in many years of doing so I've never heard anyone, instructor, student, competitor, or judge, talk about how a rider sits a horse. They do talk about whether the rider has a good seat or a bad seat. And they talk about how a rider sits (intransitive) – sitting well, sitting forward, etc.

    I've read a fair amount of literature about riding, and I don't recall the usage. I don't believe it's in Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, for example. But Google Books tells me that both Trollope and Dickens used it, and I've read Trollope and Dickens, so I apparently didn't notice it.

    And google searches of "sit a horse," "sit your horse," turn up many current usages, so my own experience doesn't appear to be reflective of the general usage.

    But the quotes from the OED that Language Hat cites, and the examples I've found by google in currently and in older literature, show that McCarthy's usage is non-standard. He uses it to mean that the rider is holding the horse at a stand. Perhaps that's why it stuck in my memory so strongly,

  50. the other Mark P said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 9:29 pm


    but the fact that foreign content could be posted on the .au domain in so many different ways (copying, commenting, etc) utterly invalidates it.

    You're not learning in a hurry, are you?

    Obviously uncritical use of Google hits is not to be supported. But Goeff original claim is that we can investigate and find out the truth of statements made without evidence.

    So we can follow through plenty of individual links and find the truth of your statement that much .au content is generated. In fact your original statement was that only the .us users would make the lie/lay mistake, so any content from .nz and .uk would count against your theory.

    So instead of saying "foreign content could be posted", perhaps you might to like, check, first.

    Then you rebut the accusation properly. Or not make the remark when it turns out to be untrue!

    My feeling is that, with respect to Kiwis, is that lay has become one of them posh words that people use when "speaking proper". (The effect is most strong with personal pronouns, as in "give it to myself" which people hardly ever say when speaking casually, but frequently do in formal situations.)

  51. bloix said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    Other Mark P, you do realize that after whacking Tom up the side of the head for his habit of rank speculation, you end your comment with rank speculation? You may be right, and it's an interesting point, but what investigation have you done?

    I get that Prof. Pullum is a professor and he refrains from speaking about his field of study without having made an investigation first. That's what he should do – with the authority of his station comes the responsibility to use it appropriately. But I'm not a professor. I have no authority and no responsibility. I just like to chat about language. Sometimes I say things that are interesting and correct, and other times I say things that are uninformed, but I don't think I need to spend half an hour researching things before I can put up a comment. If I'm wrong, someone (e.g. Language Hat) will let me know in no time, and what harm is done? I've wasted a few pixels and given Language Hat pleasure. What's wrong with that?

  52. Gadi said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    My hypothesis is simple: Monoglot speakers who don't ever think of language conceptually, but just use what comes out of their mouths in order to be understood don't much care.

    My solution: Start teaching your children languages, Anglo-Americans monoglots.

  53. Tom (both of them) said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    Other Mark P: "So instead of saying "foreign content could be posted", perhaps you might to like, check, first."

    If you read all the comments it is already explained how this is almost impossible. Anything you "check" could have originally been composed by any English speaker.

  54. A mathematician said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 12:13 pm


    Anything you "check" could have originally been composed by any English speaker.

    Strictly speaking this is of course true, but perhaps I muddied the waters by discussing the top results for .uk domains, which really do seem to have been cribbed from American sources. All were of international subjects, and I was able to find evidence that they had been cribbed.

    By contrast, there's every reason to think that the examples found by Prof. Pullum in .au domains are authentically Australian. The first three concern matters of Australian interest, viz, an Australian boxer, a fire in Darwin (I think), and Rugby League. As for the fourth, well, I can't make head or tail of it, but it seems pretty Australian to me. (I thought a 'tinny' was a beer, but almost everything I know about Australia derives from watching either Neighbours or cricket, so what do I know?)

  55. mike said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    >"the people I mix with are generally better educated than the Australians who write things on the internet!"

    If people need to go to school in order to "learn" the structures of _their native tongue_, those structures have become moribund in the vernacular. No one needs to go to school to learn that it's "I give him a present today" but "I gave her a present yesterday", because the give-gave distinction is alive and well, and we don't need to do exercises in grammar class in order to try to master it. But we do all have to go to school to learn the lie/lay distinction, the use of whom, and other such features of SWE, which, in effect, we're all learning as a kind of foreign dialect, since no one grows up speaking it perfectly.

  56. wally said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    You know, maybe we are missing the point with expecting people to fact check. Thats no how things are done these days. The system should do it for us, a la spell check or word completion. With google now answering questions before we finish typing them in, maybe this is not so far off. The interface looks for facts, and checks them as you type.

    Can we get this implemented on the language log comments section?
    Doesn't anyone have a couple of graduate students they could assign
    to this.

  57. David Green said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    Seems to me perfectly reasonable that some idiolects of English, mine (I think) included, make an instinctive distinction between "lie" and "lay". Others do not. Quite apart from geographical distribution.

  58. Adrian said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    A google fact-check makes Tom look pretty accurate to me, that particular error is ten times less likely on .au sites

    You really should have looked at the ratio of correct and incorrect usage across different countries, rather than just looking for a few examples of incorrect usage in Australia.

  59. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    "No one needs to go to school to learn that it's 'I give him a present today' but 'I gave her a present yesterday', because the give-gave distinction is alive and well, and we don't need to do exercises in grammar class in order to try to master it."

    On the contrary, when I was a boy in West Virginia, ordinary speech was "I give him a present today," "I give her a present yesterday," and "I've give them presents ever day." One of the reasons I'm such a stickler about principal parts with my students is that I had to learn them myself with great effort, and so do many of my students; but most of them don't seem to have gotten the same kind of middle- and high-school instruction that I had.

  60. deirdre said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    I've been hanging around with a selection of educated, professional Kiwis (mostly physiotherapists) who need to say lay/lie a lot in their work. I live in Australia but I'm from other parts of the colonial empire. Totally anecdotal evidence: they all say "lay on the bed," "lay on the floor" etc. This physio practice is owned by Kiwis and seems to be funnelling Kiwi physios into Australia as part of their practice. Since I attend this physiotherapy practice often, and have done for seven years, I've been conducting this unofficial, unscientific examination. They all say "lay" and never "lie" in this context. Any response from KIwis out there?

  61. Mark Liberman said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    I think of Australians as being tough and good-natured, but both in this case and in the case documented here, there seems to be a surprisingly large contingent who are prissy and touchy.

  62. David Waugh said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 3:44 am

    As a Scot living in the south of England I would say that lie & lay are thoroughly confused around here – so much so that if you tried to point out the confusion to the averaged southerner they wouldn't know what you were talking about. The fact that I notice it so much suggests that the confusion has not taken place in Scottish English, or at least had not in my formative years.

  63. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    Way back to @Jongseong Park —

    Isn't the confusion due to the easily checkable fact that Strine speakers pronounce "lay" the same as "lie"? How many Ozzies distinguish between "pray" and "pry" or "late" and "light" in casual speech. Let's not over-analyze.

    Did I miss something?

  64. Stephen Jones said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    The use of Google to determine how common the dintinction between the words is ignored is utterly ridiculous

    Nothing of the sort. Taking the Google estimate as evidence is ridiculous, but you go through a representative sample and it soon becomes clear whether it is the result of non-native speakers. With the differences between BrE and AmE we have easily accessible corpora. Obviously with other varieties such as Australian or South African English it is not as easy.

    As for your thinking you would have noticed the difference if it were common, I doubt it. You'd let it slide past you without noticing.

  65. Stephen Jones said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    but I don't think I need to spend half an hour researching things before I can put up a comment.

    Shows how little you care for your readers, not to mention self-respect.

  66. Jongseong Park said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    @Dan Lufkin, I said many outsiders hear the Strine 'lay' as 'lie', not that they actually pronounced the words the same, which is a quite different claim. It is a claim that I don't make, as I don't think I've ever heard an Aussie who actually merges those two diphthongs.

  67. iching said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 1:32 am

    @Dan Lufkin
    On the contrary, it is easily verifiable that in AuE "lay" and "lie" are pronounced completely differently, at least if you believe the
    Wikipedia IPA chart for English dialects
    The IPA symbols given are æɪ and ɑe. Unfortunately I am not very familiar with IPA but the first symbol makes sense to me, as when I pronounce "lay" (or "face") I can hear the first part as the same vowel as "cat" (or "trap"). I don't know what the ɑ symbol on its own represents because I fail to spot it on the chart as a monophthong. I don't know why the symbol for the final glide part of the diphthong is different. They sound the same to me. I would have ɪ for both.
    To my ears the two vowel sounds are as different as between any other Australian diphthongs.
    Sound-bites in AuE for "face" and "fine" (the same vowels as "lay" and "lie") are here.
    Unfortunately the female voice uses a level tone for "face" but a rising tone for "fine", but the difference even allowing for this is stark for me.

  68. Bloix said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    Stephen Jones – a comment thread is a chat, not a professional meeting.

  69. H.B.B. Noizzz said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 12:20 am

    @ Gadi – if by 'simple' you mean 'mean-spirited and half-cocked', then yes, your hypothesis is very simple.

    As for your solution, how about a trade – the monoglot Anglos start learning some new languages in exchange for you learning to be a little more delicate. Deal? Deal.

  70. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    All I can report is that I was once involved in great kerfuffle about whether a piece of radio (wireless) equipment was the latest or the lightest of its kind. It was at an exhibit sponsored by the Australian embassy in Washington and an embassy staffer wrote the press release.

    I do not doubt me that Prof. Henry Higgins could distinguish instantly. I merely note that the distinction in the vowel is a weak one and often subject to mishearing.

  71. chris said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    An afterthought on this issue: it seems quite likely that the same person might consistently express the concept of "be recumbent" by using the verb "lie" in some forms of the verb, and consistently express exactly the same concept using the verb "lay" in other forms of the verb. I'm almost certainly not using the right terminology here, but what I mean is this: I can easily imagine that there are people who would *always* say "John's been lying on the bed for hours" and would *never* say "John's been laying on the bed for hours" (unless John happened to be an oddly-named pet chicken) but who, if they had to tell John to lie down on the bed, would *always* say "Lay down on the bed, John."

    In other words, for these people, "lay" has effectively become the imperative form of "lie".

    Not quite sure how you'd check that through study, but I think it would be beyond the scope of corpus research, at any rate.

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