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Lay vs. Lie: Miley, Sufjan, and Grammatical Snafus in Pop Stardom

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Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus addressing her use of the word laying in her song “Get It Right.” The lyric in question: “I been laying in this bed all night long.” Before addressing the grammatical sin of “I been,” Sufjan explains that Miley should have used the word lying in place of laying. What’s the difference between the two?

Lying has several senses, but in this case it comes from the verb lie meaning “to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position.” Lie is an intransitive verb, which means it does not require an object. Laying comes from the the word lay meaning “to put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest.” Lay is a transitive verb, which means it requires a direct object. Since Miley is not placing an object, such as a foam finger or an oversized teddy bear on her bed in this lyric, lying would indeed be the correct word choice here.

That said, Miley is not the first musician to get this wrong. In fact, pop music has a long tradition of mixing up lay and lie, and we listeners have a long tradition of overlooking this and many other grammatical deviations in the name of artistic license. For instance, Bob Dylan’s beloved song “Lay Lady Lay” is grammatically incorrect. Following the reasoning above, the correct lyric and song title would be “Lie, Lady, Lie.” But “lay lady lay” rhymes with the affectionate refrain “stay lady stay.” Had Dylan written “lie lady lie,” what would the corresponding line be? “Cry lady cry”? This minor tweak could have resulted in a very different song.

One reason folks have a hard time keeping these two verbs straight is that lay is the past tense of lie. However, as far as we can tell, “Lay Lady Lay” is written in the present tense, and so is Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally,” which commits the same crime. The grammatically correct phrase would be “Lie down, Sally,” unless Clapton (or a third party) was holding Sally and physically placing her down. But the sound of the word pairings was the priority here, just as with “Lay Lady Lay.” Clapton wants Sally to lay probably because he also wants her to stay, no matter how grammatically incorrect that proposition is.

It’s not all recumbent blunders out there in the kingdom of popular music. Pulled from the same era as the aforementioned classic songs, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” boasts correct, if nonstandard, usage of lay in the line “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.” This usage works because lay takes the object me.

And now for a challenge: Snow Patrol’s 2006 hit song “Chasing Cars” includes the following line: “If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?” Can you spot what’s happening with lay and lie in this example?

Have you heard abuses or proper uses of lay and lie on the radio? More interestingly, do oversights such as Miley’s drive you up a wall, or does a little grammatical fudging do a ditty good?

44 Comments

  1. pewpew -  April 23, 2014 - 11:16 am

    “We could just run them red lights” gets me everytime it comes on the radio. I spitefully sing along “those” everytime. It doesn’t even sound very different. I’m still in disbelief anyone thought that would be a logical lyric to play for the nation.

    Reply
  2. thesyndrome -  December 3, 2013 - 3:32 pm

    Mythpunk,

    You’re wrong. The stars looked and he lay. Both past tense. Both grammatically correct. Leave John Freeman Young alone.

    Reply
  3. Kari -  October 29, 2013 - 12:12 pm

    Since so many people are misinformed, I feel like I have to explain why “If I lay here” is wrong. Using the 1st conditional would be “If I lie here (all the time).” Using the 2nd conditional would be “If I (were to) lie here (hypothetically).” Using 3rd conditional would be “If I had lain here (that day instead of getting up and leaving).” Absolutely in no case would the simple past tense “lay” be used in the conditional mood.

    Reply
  4. Kari -  October 29, 2013 - 12:04 pm

    The few of you who are saying that Snow Patrol’s lyrics are correct are wrong. If they had been using the conditional tense, they would have said, “If I had lain here.” I’m an editor for a living, and that song has been annoying me for 7 years!

    Reply
  5. Idiots R us -  October 29, 2013 - 10:16 am

    Hey Jonathan; don’t hurt yourself dude! (Didn’t you mean “as” instead of “is”?) And since when is teenage/twentysomething un-educated, street slang BS recognized as grammatically correct? And are you sure you know them thar definitions? Did you have to use a thesaurus? Geeze Loweeze! Pseudo-intellectuals drive me to distraction!

    Reply
  6. Hudson -  October 29, 2013 - 9:25 am

    Give her a break, I mean, come on. Just because she has bad grammar and dresses trashy sometimes doesn’t mean she’s a bad person. She is a great singer anyways and when your singing, it really doesn’t matter if you have bad grammar. And sarah is right. I do like her music though. Then again, the only thing I usually listen to is pop and rap/hip hop. :D :)

    Reply
  7. Boone -  October 29, 2013 - 5:48 am

    I lay my head on the pllow when I lie abed.
    Yesterday I laid my head on the pillow & lay abed.
    I had laid my head on the pillow & have lain abed for twenty-five minutes.

    Reply
  8. sarah -  October 29, 2013 - 5:03 am

    I am a word nerd all the way – but in a song, one is allowed poetic license. The “lay” v “lie” thing drives me nuts when I hear adults misuse it in conversation, but in music (i am not a fan of miley but for the sake of argument, will call her stuff music), proper grammar can sound silly.

    In @Abbybabs example “I can’t get no satisfaction”, would we still like that song is it were written ” I can’t get any satisfaction”? Hi, I am a grungy rock star but my grammar is impeccable doesn’t quite work in the world of Rock and Roll :)

    The rest of us? You lay a book down. You lie down to take a nap. Easy peasy! Oh and @Keith – huh??

    Reply
  9. Ed -  October 29, 2013 - 3:43 am

    @Jonathan:

    A cursory glance at empirical data does not show that “I been” is correct. It just shows that lots of people do not know better or cannot be bothered.

    Reply
  10. Ed -  October 29, 2013 - 3:37 am

    Nice article, but actually the quote from the snow patrol song is a correct conditional sentence.

    Reply
  11. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  October 29, 2013 - 3:02 am

    Who invented the word ‘crepuscule’? (It’s today’s Word of the Day, and means twilight or dusk.) To me, dusk sounds like sunset, when darkness is just starting to creep in; and twilight sounds like the time just after sunset, when the light is fading and the evening cool is deepening. But crepuscule sounds like some kind of shellfish. Ugh.

    Reply
  12. ELG -  October 29, 2013 - 2:01 am

    I don’t suppose it matters much unless it smacks of laziness and could have been avoided – like Jim Morrison’s “I’m going to love you till the stars fall from the sky, for you and I” instead of ‘me’… i’m sure the Punk Poet could’ve found a rhyme that expressed his feelings and was grammatically correct.

    Reply
  13. Sam Bailey -  October 29, 2013 - 1:52 am

    Actually, the Snow Patrol one is correct.
    The sentence is in the conditional, so he says “If I just LAY here, WOULD you lie with me”.
    In order to form the simple conditional, you have to use the perfect tense for the first verb after “if”, and then the modal “would” which is exactly what has been done.
    It’s like me saying, “If I bought a drink, would you buy one as well?”.
    The others I agree on, but the Snow Patrol one is grammatically sound.

    Reply
  14. Peter -  October 28, 2013 - 11:50 pm

    I can’t see the incorrect usage in:

    “If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?”

    Can anyone help me out?

    Reply
  15. cyberboy -  October 28, 2013 - 3:01 pm

    WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You people really care about grammar!

    Reply
  16. chris morrissey -  October 28, 2013 - 2:02 pm

    who cares if her grammar is incorrect she’s singing it really dosen’t matter

    Reply
  17. luvmonkey -  October 28, 2013 - 1:45 pm

    I get more bent out of shape over pronunciation than anything. I can’t listen to anything Demi Lovato sings because she over-enunciates her lyrics. It sounds weird. And that one P!nk song where she pronounces the ‘w’ in sword. It’s usually pronounced sawrd or sohrd according to dictionary.com.

    Things that make you go “graaaah”.

    Reply
  18. Blockerwiz -  October 28, 2013 - 1:36 pm

    It’s just a song…

    Reply
  19. Mikemcg58 -  October 28, 2013 - 1:35 pm

    She probably was laying there or at least getting laid.

    Reply
  20. Kingg Ju -  October 28, 2013 - 10:00 am

    Who cares about grammar anyways. Get a life, losers!

    Reply
  21. Mike -  October 28, 2013 - 9:59 am

    @Jonathan *smh* wow, ignorance at its best….it’s clear that your flippant disregard for accuracy makes YOU part of the problem! please go back to 8th grade grammar class and brush up on your skills before making a fool of yourself again….

    Reply
  22. Jane Doe -  October 28, 2013 - 9:57 am

    Jonathan says that “language evolves and is defined by usage.” Yes, it’s true, but I guess it boils down to how quickly one accepts new usages. According to his way of thinking, anything that has been used incorrectly for a certain period of time is perfectly fine. I cannot see things that way.

    There is hardly a native speaker of (American) English alive, as far as I can ascertain, who knows the difference between “lay” and “lie.” I cannot stand hearing this misused, but then, I am known far and wide as a pedant (aka an editor).

    Reply
  23. Jennifer -  October 28, 2013 - 9:42 am

    Please write a piece addressing grammar issues in “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt! He seems to be having “pronoun problems.” :)

    Reply
  24. Steven -  October 28, 2013 - 9:39 am

    I concur Jonathan. This is simply snobbery. The rules of language are derived from how it’s used, not how you want it to be. Based their common usage, “lay” and “lie” are both transitive and intransitive. Have been for a long time.

    Reply
  25. Daniel -  October 28, 2013 - 8:57 am

    @Jonathan: Your own pedantic argument could use some major improvements. Does precedent from growing usage indicate that “I been” is now more correct, or just that a lot of people these days are rather stupid and can’t learn grammar? After all, Miley has not given herself an awful lot of time and space to get a proper education. And sure, language evolves; but if it does in this particular case in accordance with your argument, it will be as a monument to human incompetence! As in something that was once incorrect became “right” simply because people were too dumb or apathetic to learn what was correct. Finally, evolution works two ways, hence extinction.

    Reply
  26. Vincent Oostelbos -  October 28, 2013 - 8:35 am

    That’s not quite true, Abbybabs. It’s just dialect.

    Reply
  27. Derp -  October 28, 2013 - 6:05 am

    Did you know that people have released a bacon scented smart phone?

    Reply
  28. Derp -  October 28, 2013 - 5:56 am

    Guys, its Miley Cyrus. What would you expect from someone who flops around on a wrecking ball naked? Good grammar?

    Reply
  29. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  October 28, 2013 - 5:37 am

    Grammatical snafus don’t bother me too much. They drive a friend of mine nuts, though.

    Reply
  30. Anon -  October 28, 2013 - 2:51 am

    Give her a break.

    Reply
  31. Al -  October 28, 2013 - 2:38 am

    The Chasing Cars lyrics use the word correctly in both cases. It is a conditional sentence indicating an impossible situation. For instance, if I had a million dollars, I would quit my job. Unfortunately, I do not have a million dollars.

    The past tense of lie is lay.

    I lie in bed.
    I lay in bed yesterday.
    Someone told me I had lain in this bed before.

    Reply
  32. Veritas -  October 27, 2013 - 11:37 pm

    What makes him think that Bob Dylan wasn’t referring to her sex life? She could have been busy and promiscuous.

    He is correct but as it is no longer 1950, no one really cares. They should, but they don’t. (Except about getting laid – most people care about that.)

    Reply
  33. Saurabh Bondre -  October 27, 2013 - 11:06 pm

    There is nothing grammatically wrong in the Snow Patrol’s 2006 hit “Chasing Cars” lyric: “If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?”. Here, the word “lay” is in the past tense and the sentence is an example of conditional mood. It’s something like “If I did this right, would you reward me?”
    We probably get a similar sense if we replace the past tense verb into a present tense one as “If I lie here, if I just lie here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?”, however, using a past tense in the conditional sub-clause indicates that the we already have an intention to fulfill the condition and expect the action in the main clause to occur as a result of that. Using a present tense verb rather, indicates that our fulfillment of the condition depends upon the assurance of the occurrence of the desired result.
    More grammatical information about conditional mood can be availed at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_conditional_sentences

    Reply
  34. Mythpunk -  October 27, 2013 - 6:34 pm

    “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay: the little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”

    Miley shouldn’t feel too bad (about her grammar, anyway). John Freeman Young botched this translation of the German Christmas carol Silent Night in the mid 1800s. Musicians and poets have been messing with and messing up grammar since times immemorial.

    Reply
  35. farhad hossain -  October 27, 2013 - 3:50 pm

    can use the languis bangla

    Reply
  36. Abbybabs -  October 27, 2013 - 11:23 am

    Another common grammatical error made in songs is the double negative. Like in the Rolling Stones’ song “I can’t get no satisfaction”. That actually means they are always getting satisfaction.

    Reply
  37. juanita -  October 26, 2013 - 9:17 pm

    Sufjan Stevens is ” lying” !!!
    much better

    Reply
  38. juanita -  October 26, 2013 - 9:14 pm

    Sufjan Stevens is lying !!!

    Reply
  39. I.M. Knott -  October 26, 2013 - 8:09 pm

    The following brief rhymes may help here to distinguish “lay” from “lie.”

    Shall we lay five bricks a day?
    In two days, then, we’d have lain ten.
    Or, more easily,
    Shall we lie back, drink beer,
    Doze and wake up to pee pee?

    Reply
  40. Jonathan -  October 26, 2013 - 11:56 am

    Oh, and to address the larger point of this drivel, “lay” and “lie” have been slowly collapsing into a homophonous form (because the two words are highly irregular with respect to one another) for a while. Language evolves and is defined by usage. This is pedantry at its finest.

    Reply
  41. Jonathan -  October 26, 2013 - 11:52 am

    Except nothing validates the assertion that “I been” is grammatically incorrect. Even a cursory glance at empirical data shows otherwise.

    But carry on, you have an agenda to keep. I get it.

    Reply
  42. Keith -  October 25, 2013 - 3:02 pm

    You are assuming that the song writers are talking to women and not to hens. We speak of birds laying with no explicit reference to eggs.

    Maybe song writers just have a thing for chooks and eggs.

    Reply

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