The lie of the lay or the lay of the lie

This is one I’ve avoided because I’ve found it a difficult one, but The Cambridge Guide for English Usage – a trusted friend of mine when editing – has shed some light on this nebulous and hazardous pairing of words. Of course, I speak of ‘lie‘ and ‘lay‘ and how to work out what goes where and when.

Okay, first there is lie to tell an untruth, with past tense and past participle both spelt as ‘lied‘.

That’s easy enough so far, but then we meet lie to be in a horizontal position, with past tense ‘lay‘ and past participle ‘lain‘.

And then it gets tricky. We have the present tense word lay, which is spelt the same as the past tense of the latter lie. This word means “put, place, set down” with past tense and past participle ‘laid‘.

The essential difference pointed out in the guide for ‘lie‘ (2) and ‘lay‘ is that lay takes an object, i.e. you “lay something”. Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive and doesn’t take an object.

Clear as mud? It makes my stomach squirm too. To explain a little on transitive (verb with an object)  and intransitive (without object), consider the following:

They flew me to Singapore. (transitive) or The birds flew away. (intransitive) Or using lie and lay; We lay the groundwork. (transitive for lay present tense) and He lie on the ground sleeping.


Chicken (Photo credit: Ward.)

Oh dash … double dash!

English: CMOS 16 cover image.

English: CMOS 16 cover image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was intrigued when Port Yonder Press in a Facebook discussion talked about the em dash being used in dialogue (among other things) when speech is interrupted. This was according to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the bible for editors in America. My editing experience is from an Australian perspective where we often use the ellipsis points (…) as an indication of interrupted speech or where words are omitted. I thought I’d go to the Australian Style Manual for authors, editors and printers, and what I found was quite interesting.

I discovered that the manual talks about the 2-em rule which can be used for sudden breaks and omissions. I go on to quote here my sixth edition on page 107:

A 2-em rule can be used to mark an abrupt break in direct or reported speech: 

I distinctly heard him say, ‘Go away or I’ll —— ‘ 

In this instance a space is used to separate the rule from the preceding word because a complete word is missing. If only part of the word is missing, no space is used:

It was alleged that D—— had been threatened with blackmail.

The double em dash is solid in the manual but I just had to use two em rules in succession here.

The use of the ellipsis is differentiated in the manual (page 110) in that they are primarily used to show an omission of a word or words from quoted material. It goes on to say that ellipsis points can also signify indecision and incompleteness.

Well, as they say (hey, it’s always those clever people called ‘they’!), you learn something new every day.