As we approach the new year, I find myself brokering a peace.
Between my head and my ear.
My head and my ear simply cannot agree in the admittedly logic-defying usage of the English verbs lie and lay.
Recently, I heard in some context, “After the heist, the gang was laying low before spending the money.”
My ear accepts the sentence. When I talk about my ear, I am not referring to the physical organs on the side of my head through which sounds pass on their way to my brain. Rather, I am talking about my ear as my finely tuned arbiter of English usage. It can’t stop words from flowing into my head, but it can, and does, label those as right or wrong according to my head’s understanding of acceptable usage.
For example, if my ear hears, “between you and I,” it throws down a penalty flag, much as football officials flag a player for a rule violation.
My head agrees. A regrettable, but common mistake. “Between” is a preposition, demanding an object; thus, the nominative pronoun “I” in this case should be in the objective case “me.”
My head as the final arbiter in all such matters has, in fact, trained my ear so that there is rarely a disagreement between them.
But my head will not accept the usage in “After the heist, the gang was laying low.”
No, my head says after a moment’s hesitation.
That should be “After the heist, the gang was lying low.”
Nonsense my ear responds. Listen head, just listen. You know “laying” sounds right.
I know, my head confesses. But wrong is wrong.
The reason for this argument is complicated because the usage rule involved demands threading a needle through the lie/lay conundrum, the most troublesome combination of words in the language. My knowledge of this pair does not extend to how it evolved to its current situation wherein two verbs are like fraternal twins, alike in some ways but different in important other ways. Both describe an action that results in a physical lowering. But each does so while differing in form and function. The form difference begins with the vowels in the infinitives: lie vs. lay.
The function difference involves the “lie” version being intransitive while its fraternal twin is transitive. Intransitive means the verb has no object: “I lie down after lunch,” where “after lunch” is an adverb, not an object. Transitive verbs have objects: “I lay me down to sleep,” in which “me” is an object.
The past tense versions of these verb compound the confusion: the past of “lie,” wait for it, is “lay,” while the past of lay is “laid.” And the past participles differ: “lain” for lie, and “laid” for lay. Both verbs form present participles as all English verbs do by adding an “ing” suffix, but for one there is a vowel change: lie becomes “lying” while lay is “laying.”
The sentence under discussion is intransitive because “low” is an adverb, not an object. Thus, usage demands the present participle of lie, “…the gang was lying low.”
This is my head’s point. My ear, however, has begun to transition to what appears to be the long-term solution. That would be the two verbs merging into one “lay” form.
Which brings us back to why my ear prefers “laying” while my head insists on “lying.” The latter is still formally correct, but the former is well on the way to winning the battle where it counts most, and that is in how people actually use the language.
But I don’t expect my head to admit defeat any time soon.