"I been laying in this bed all night long"

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Sufjan Stevens has posted an interesting comment on Miley Cyrus's "Get It Right". You should go read it on his blog, but since I've noticed that LL commenters often don't follow links, here's the text:

Dear Miley. I can’t stop listening to #GetItRight (great song, great message, great body), but maybe you need a quick grammar lesson. One particular line causes concern: “I been laying in this bed all night long.” Miley, technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING, an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e. “I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.” Whatever. I’m not the best lyricist, but you know what I mean. #Get It Right The Next Time. But don’t worry, even Faulkner messed it up. We all make mistakes, and surely this isn’t your worst misdemeanor. But also, Miley, did you know the tense here is also totally wrong. Surely you’ve heard of Present Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long [hopefully getting some beauty sleep?]). It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks. But I have a feeling your “present perfect continuous” involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense? Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan. Don’t ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan

If you're still confused about lying and laying, Geoff Pullum has some disastrously unhelpful guidance. And if you're wondering about the grammatical (as opposed to metaphorical) "present perfect continuous tense" business, Arnold Zwicky's discussion of extended senses of the word tense may be useful.


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    Wrong question. Miley, who you been laying in this bed all night long?

  2. Faldone said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    An informal survey* of modern usage on lie vs. lay leads me to believe that the language is well on the way to deprecating the use of the intransitive verb meaning "be recumbent" and replacing it with the (formerly) transitive verb, which has taken on the intransitive meaning.

    * As a card-carrying geezer I make frequent trips to doctor's offices where I am generally told by the nurse to "lay down on the table". Having also heard this usage in many other contexts I would say that this usage is in the vast majority of instances. The fault, dear Sufjan, is not in our language, but in your grammar.

  3. John F said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    Sufjan Stevens may have decided to mock the other people writing open letters to Miley Cyrus.

  4. Ben said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    From "All Delighted People," by Sufjan Stevens:
    "On your breast I gently laid / Your arms surround me in the lake"

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    Imperative "lie down," addressed to someone who is currently standing, means more or less "lay yourself down" (i.e. "cause yourself to become lying down"). I have no idea whether imperative "lay down" in some empirical/historical sense actually originated as a clipped version of "lay (yourself) down," but because it has the causative/change-of-state thing going on it's a bit different from the steady-state "laying" Miss Cyrus is discussing without even getting into dialect variation. Whether, e.g., Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" (flagged as prescriptively "incorrect" by GKP) is better understood as requesting some sort of affirmative/causative action on the part of the lady in question, or merely the continuation via inertia of the current state of affairs is not entirely clear to me. Consult a qualified Dylanologist and/or semanticist.

  6. Chris said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    You omit to mention what is, for me, the most striking aspect of this blog post, which is the entirely incorrect claim that the (prescriptively approved, transitive) verb 'lay' is irregular. It is not. It is 100% regular: lay, laid, laid; just like betray, betrayed, betrayed etc.

  7. mollymooly said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    A lair is where you lie, whereas a layer is what lies, and a liar is who lies. If you relay a layer, it's re'laid. If you relay a lie, it's 'relayed. Lies are not reliable.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    @Chris: The why isn't is spelled "layed"? (That's a rhetorical question, in case it wasn't clear.)

    On the who lie/lay/laid thing, for years now I've been seeing "lay" used as the past tense of the transitive verb, as in "He lay his hand on her knee". I assume this is a hypercorrection by people who have it drilled into them that they shouldn't say "I laid on my bed", plus avoidance of the sexual sense of "laid".

  9. James said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    MYL didn't mention it, but Faulkner didn't get it wrong at all. Maybe Stevens read the linked page and forgot, or misunderstood, or glanced at it but didn't really read it…

  10. Faldone said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    J. W. Brewer's analysis is, I think, quite interesting. One may "lie down", i.e., be in the state of lying down, but "lay down", i.e., put oneself in the state of lying down. That will be a good one to listen for. Ordinarily the prescriptive solution would be to use the progressive for the former and the plain present for the latter situation, but it wouldn't be the first time the language has slipped out from beneath our metaphorical feet leaving us having to run as fast as we can to stay in one place.

  11. Chris said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    @Robert We need to make a distinction between morphological and orthographic (ir)regularity. Transitive 'lay' is morphologically and morphophonologically 100% regular. Now, you might argue that the way we spell its preterite/past participle is irregular, but I think you'll probably find that there is so much arbitrariness and inconsistency in English spelling conventions that the whole notion of orthographic regularity (in English) is suspect.

    By the way, it's also worth mentioning that it's no coincidence that (historically) 'lay' a) sounds similar to 'lie', b) is causative of 'lie' and c) is regular (a 'weak' not a 'strong' verb), while 'lie' is irregular ('strong' not 'weak'):


  12. Levantine said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    This made me think of such British usages as 'I've been sat on the chair/stood at the door all day', which I believe began as Northernisms but are becoming increasingly widespread.

  13. Ted said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    Faulkner may or may not have gotten it wrong, but Dylan certainly did.

  14. Lazar said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 11:56 am

    The trick that got me to internalize the "lay-lie" distinction is to analogize it with "raise-rise" (a pair which doesn't seem to be confused nearly as much): "lay" uses the same vowel as "raise", and they're both transitive; "lie" uses the same vowel as "rise", and they're both intransitive.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    It might be a fair response to my earlier point to note (if it's accurate, which I expect it is, but without looking for in-the-wild counterexamples to my vague sense of the matter) that people don't seem to use imperative "raise up" for "raise yourself up" but manage to stick to "rise up," or the perhaps semi-archaic-feeling "arise". On the other hand, there's a semantic distinction insofar as intransitive "rising" is itself the process (and the very same process as "being raised," merely without a salient agent causing the process), not (as with intransitive lying) the state resulting from the completion of the process that's the referent of the causative verb. There's no straightforward intransitive English verb I can think of that means "being-in-the-state-of-having-risen-or-been-raised."

  16. L said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 12:47 pm


    And for some lies, libel may lie, and the liar may be liable.

  17. Faldone said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    Lie/lay has a couple of features that rise/raise doesn't have: there's the crosstalk between the base form of lay with the past tense form of lie and there's the conflict between lie and the unrelated lie, 'tell an untruth'. These may be enough to tip lie/lay over the edge.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    At least one sense of "rouse" means approximately "cause to rise" (i.e., cause to get out of bed), but etymologywise that seems to be sheer coincidence, rather than a further example of causative-formation-by-ablaut.

  19. Craig said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    The quoted Sufjan line must refer to laying a body part, most likely hands but perhaps the head, on the breast. With Sufjan so clearly concerned with the distinction he wouldn't have been implying that he was lying with his whole body across the breast, right?

    I also think J.W. Brewer has some support for his analysis in the refrain "Now I lay me down to sleep." It's a prayer recited while one is not yet lying in bed but preparing for the transition. Unless this was written, like Faulkner's prose, to reflect dialectical variations.

  20. Noogie said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

    All I can think about now is the song that the Grateful Dead ended many their shows with. (traditional)

    Lay down my dear Brother, lay down and take your rest
    I want to lay your head upon your Savior's breast
    I love you, but Jesus loves you best
    I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight
    I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight

  21. John Lawler said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    A long time ago, for a morphology class, I made up this handout illustrating Mathews' three different senses of "word" by showing the relations among all the forms and derivations of the lexemes lie₁, lie₂, and lay.

    I suspect it's a good graphic for Geoff's "disastrously unhelpful guidance".

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

    There are enough Grateful Dead obsessives out there that it's easy to do specialized corpus linguistics on the Dead corpus (corpse?). http://www3.clearlight.com/~acsa/intro.htm, for example, will let you find a wide range of songs (including other artists' songs the Dead might have covered once or twice) with "lay" in its various senses in the lyrics (subject of course to vagaries of transcription etc.). Other databases such as http://deadbase.com/ will let you see how many times (again subject to vagaries etc., although it's a remarkably complete underlying dataset) they played "And We Bid You Goodnight" versus, e.g., how many times they played "To Lay Me Down," and even whether they ever played both at the same show. (Answer: yes, twice; 9/20/70 and 11/11/73.)

  23. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

    What Faldone said. In spoken American English, anyway, as represented by more or less mainstream media (my exemplar is NPR), 'lay' has firmly established itself as the preferred form of the intransitive verb, especially for the g-p, but also the plain present. And why not, really? I'll continue to be "correct" out of habit, but otherwise I'll lay back and enjoy it.

  24. Ken Brown said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    Notoriously, a diplomat was a man sent to lie abroad for his country.

  25. The Ridger said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    Although if you Google "mist raises" (for example) you'll see a lot of such usages. For instance

    Mist raises from Tuolumne Meadows on a autumn morning

    "His music is the perfect backdrop for the late nights of empty street calm, when the fog raises from below the streets and traffic lights flash."

    And there are also things like "rise me up" or "an excuse to rise prices".

    Frankly, it looks like the need to distinguish transitive from intransitive (or stative from causative, or whatever) is not really all that felt.

  26. Greg Malivuk said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

    I don't think "Now I lay me down to sleep" really supports J. W. Bremer's point, because the "me" suggests that it's a transitive use. Prescriptivists would no doubt object to "me" in place of "myself", but using "lay" rather than "lie" appears to be formally correct there.

  27. Faldone said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    The trick I've always used to distinguish a transitive verb from an intransitive verb is to look for an object. If it has one it's transitive. Note, that this is not necessarily as simple as it may seem. When the waitress lays your meal in front of you and says, "Enjoy," the object is not in her utterance but rather is lying on the table in front of you.

  28. marie-lucie said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 10:44 pm

    Lay, lady, lay

    I can't imagine Lie, lady, lie working as the initial words of the song! Lay here sounds folksy rather than "incorrect".

  29. Bloix said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 3:00 am

    "it looks like the need to distinguish transitive from intransitive (or stative from causative, or whatever) is not really all that felt."

    There isn't any such need. Many verbs are identical whether intransitive or intransitive. I poured the water/The water poured into the glass. He broke the cup/The cup broke. She walked the dog/The dog walked beside her. These verbs create no confusion.

  30. Ted said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 8:57 am

    @Bloix: Witness the following exchange between Prefect and Dent:

    "It's unpleasantly like being drunk."

    "What's so unpleasant about being drunk?"

    "Ask a glass of water."

  31. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    I can't imagine Lie, lady, lie working as the initial words of the song! Lay here sounds folksy rather than "incorrect".

    From the viewpoint of the prescriptivist grammarian "absolutely the right construction to use under the circumstances, creating exactly the sense and mood it is intended to create" is not as important as "correct".

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

    Dylan also has ("folksy" or not) the purely-stative "lay" of the Cyrus example we started with, as in, e.g., "Early one mornin' the sun was shinin' / I was layin' in bed." (The g-droppin' as well as the lay/lie preference is as specified in the authorized/official lyrics at http://www.bobdylan.com.) So either we should expect a forthcoming "open letter" from Stevens to Dylan on the same grammatical point, or we can assume that John F's hypothesis way upthread is accurate.

  33. Christopher Hodge said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

    Briefly to come away from the lie/lay thing (best noun I could come up with, sorry), that use of "been" is very much standard in AAVE, isn't it?

  34. dw said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 6:38 pm


    An informal survey* of modern usage on lie vs. lay leads me to believe that the language is well on the way to deprecating the use of the intransitive verb meaning "be recumbent" and replacing it with the (formerly) transitive verb, which has taken on the intransitive meaning.

    My equally informal impression of British usage is that the opposite is happenning: "lie" is taking over both transitive and intransitive meanings.

  35. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

    As GKP noted, we never hear people say *"Madagascar lays off the east coast of Africa". Is that because geography is strictly limited to formal register, or is it in fact not quite true that "lie" is being replaced by "lay"? Perhaps we continue to have two senses of "lie": the former is still "tell an untruth", but the latter has come to mean "is situated", from earlier "is recumbent." "lay", meanwhile, has acquired a second sense: in addition to the old one of "cause to be recumbent", it also now means "is recumbent".

  36. Eric said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

    Christopher Hodge:
    Absolutely. And AAVE is a firmly established part of English-language pop music lyricism, as otherwise monodialectical white speakers, when writing words to their rock 'n roll song, will reflexively employ canonical constructions like "my baby ain't got no" inherited from blues generations ago.

  37. Colin Fine said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    Jonathan Gress Wright: I think you're spot on.

  38. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    Just over a century ago, Don Marquis (later of archy and mehitabel fame) published his first novel "Danny's Own Story," in which the protagonist uses the same construction as Miss Cyrus: "I been laying here fur quite a spell, and quite natcheral I listened to you, as any one else would of done." This is obviously supposed to be "rustic dialect," but it's not supposed to be proto-AAVE. There is by contrast lots of specific "Negro dialect" in the mouths of black characters elsewhere in the book (e.g. "Long time ago dey was consid'ble gwines-on in dis hyah county, Marse Daniel") that is distinct from that of the rustic white characters such as the protagonist.

  39. bloix said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    From Huckleberry Finn:

    "He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain't been seen in these parts for a year or more."

    "The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before."

    "Now looky here; you stop that putting on frills. I won't have it. I'll lay for you, my smarty; and if I catch you about that school I'll tan you good."

    "I made Jim lay down in the canoe and cover up with the quilt."

    "Does three hundred dollars lay around every day for people to pick up?"

    These are all white speakers.

    As Twain says in a note, "In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech."

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