From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)
The tenth of a ten-part series.
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Drum roll please . . . the error I see most often when editing manuscripts concerns the use of the confounding verb lie, which is often confused with the related verb, lay.
Lay vs. Lie
The confusion lies with lay, which has two related yet distinct meanings:
1. lay: to put or place or set something (i.e., an object) somewhere.
Please lay (put) the book on the table.
Please lay (put) the dog down; she doesn’t like to be held.
2. lay: past tense of the verb lie, to be or remain in a flat or horizontal position, to recline.
He laid (put) the book on the table, and it lay (remained) there for three days.
After laying (putting) the book on the table, he tripped on the dog and fell, hit his head and lay (remained) on the floor, unconscious.
The manuscripts I get from dogs never make the lay vs. lie error.
The problem dogs have is that when a human says “lay down,” the dogs hear “put down” and fear they are about to be euthanized. So, I implore you, do not terrorize your dog, say lie down, not lay down. (And remember, let sleeping dogs lie.)
Conjugation of lay and lie:
Present Participle Past Past Participle
- Lay lay laying laid laid
- Lie lie lying lay lain
As you can see, the present tense form of lay is “lay” and the past tense form of lie is “lay.” Therein lies the consternation. They are homonyms. (Again, don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger.)
People complain that the correct usage “doesn’t sound right to me.” That’s probably because they have heard/seen it used incorrectly so many times.
Here’s a way to remember and discern the difference:
- When using lie: substitute “recline” and see if the context still makes sense.
I’m tired; I will lie on the sofa. I’m tired; I will recline on the sofa.
- When using lay: substitute “put” or “place” or “set” and see if the context still makes sense.
I will lay the book on the table. I will put (or place or set) the book on the table.
Examples of usage:
incorrect: Inside the box, the pizza laid stiff and hot.
incorrect: Inside the box, the pizza lied stiff and hot.
incorrect: She told her dog to lay down.
incorrect: He laid on the bed.
incorrect: She lied down on the bed.
correct: Inside the box, the pizza lay stiff and hot.
correct: She told her dog to lie down.
correct: He lay on the bed.
correct: He laid his head on the pillow.
correct: She lied to the policeman.
Clarity, not confusion.
A hen lays an egg; your mom lies down because you’re giving her a headache.
The hen laid an egg; your mom lay down because you gave her a headache.
The hen had laid an egg; your mom had lain down because you had given her a headache.
Old prayer: Now I lay me down to sleep . . .
Q: Correct or incorrect?
A: Correct, because it includes the object “me.”
Contender in the Verbal Abuse Ring
I have spotted a contender on the move: Comprise
- Comprise vs. Compose: the verb comprise stands alone, unlike compose or consist, which need the preposition “of” to prop them up.
- Comprise vs. Include: comprise implies every component within the object in question—the whole shebang, as it were—whereas include implies a partial list.
The whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole.
— Jonathon Owen
- The deluxe cheeseburger comprises seven layers: bun, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and condiments.
- The deluxe cheeseurger is composed of (consists of) seven layers: bun, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and condiments.
- The deluxe cheesburger includes the bun, meat, and cheese, as well as optional items.
I’m not alone in this seeing this. Jonathon Owen, in his blog Arrant Pedantry, cited this example from Wired magazine:
It is in fact a Meson (which comprise of a quark and an anti-quark).
It is in fact a Meson (which comprises a quark and an anti-quark).
Also-rans in the court of public discourse:
- Lead vs. Lead—the past tense of the verb lead is led, not lead.
incorrect: They hiked up the mountain, lead by a park ranger.
correct: They hiked up the mountain, led by a park ranger.
As a verb, “lead” is pronounced “leed.”
As a noun, the metal “lead”—as in lead bullet or lead pipe—is pronounced “led,” rhymes with dead.
Seems simple enough, yes? Yet, I see this periodically and have spotted it in books by best-selling authors, published by the biggest houses in New York. (I will save them embarrassment by not revealing the authors’ names or their publishers—for now.)
- Hanged vs. Hung—a criminal is hanged by the neck until dead, pictures are hung on the wall.
- Pleaded vs. Pled—the defendant pleaded not guilty, not pled. (Yeah, yeah, I hear lawyers use “pled.” I rest my case.)
- Merriam-Webster: definition of lay
- Merriam-Websster: definition of lie
- Grammar Girl: Lay Versus Lie
- Grammar Girl : Comprise Versus Compose
- Compose vs. Comprise – Grammarist
- Comprised of Fail | Arrant Pedantry
- Resources for Writers, Editors, and Indie Publishers
#10 They’re, Their Now: Contractions & Homophonic Convergence
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present
#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash—The Separator
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, and Contusion
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
Still to come:
Extra: (A Few of) My Language Pet Peeves