Mike Keeler

Last week I wrote that Elijah Cummings was born in 1851. Which would have made him 168 years old. My apologies to the great man.

But in my defense, I missed that typo because I was so distracted by the prospect of making a mistake with a verb or conjugation. To wit, when you look up the history of federal employees who have been honored with memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda, they are alternately described as “Lying in State” or “Laying in State.” So which is it?

The former sounds more natural, in that “to lie” is what a person does with themselves as the object, e.g. “I will lie down” versus “to lay” which is what a person does to another object, e.g. “I will lay the book down.” On the other hand, dead honorees cannot choose to “lie” themselves down in the Rotunda, they must be brought there by pallbearers, and so they “lay” in honor only as the object of others’ actions.

The confusion between “lie” and “lay” gets funky fast. As a verb, perhaps the most common reference folks have for “lay” they learned as a child, as in “now I lay me down to sleep,” so folks might naturally conclude that “lay” is the right verb for getting into bed. However, in this case the prayer includes the object “me,” so “lay me down” is correct, though stilted. When one normally speaks of going to bed, they don’t include “me” and so the prayer could more naturally be, “now I lie down to sleep.”

The past tense doesn’t help things. The past tense of “lay” is “laid,” but the past tense of “lie” is actually “lay”: “She laid down the law and I lay down to think about it.”

How about the past participle?: “Grandma had laid the chicken on the counter and it had lain there all day.” You read that right: “lain.”

(And don’t forget both words have meanings as nouns: you might have a good lie on the golf course, or you might appreciate the lay of the course itself; you can say that you have read Tolkien’s entire epic poem “The Lay of Leithian” in Elvish, but that would be a lie.)

As for Mr. Cummings, the correct answer is he was “Lying in State.” “Lie” is an intransitive verb, it doesn’t need an object, so “lying down” means both the act of getting oneself horizontal, as well as the state of being horizontal, no matter how one got there. “I was told to lie down. I lay down. I have lain here since. I’m still lying here.”

“Lay” is a transitive verb needing an object. “I was told to lay the book down. I laid it down. I am laying more down now.”

So last week when I wrote that Elijah Cummings “lay in state” (past tense) I was correct.
But when I said Elijah Cummings “lays in state” (present tense) I was wrong.

For the four of you who corrected my 1851 date last week, thanks for paying attention.

But the rest of you coulda called me out for bad grammar.

No lie, ya shoulda laid into me.

Mike Keeler