Word Flummoxery: lie lay lie



The flummoxerization of the average native speaker of English who has unexpectedly wandered into grammar’s slough of despond is never greater than when he/she/they (you choose) have/has to deal with lie, lay, and lie. The three words sound deceivingly like musical non-lexical vocables, sounds singers make up when they can’t think of any more words.



The first lie in this triad is an intransitive verb, which means the action of the verb doesn’t go anywhere because the subject is resting, so please keep your voice down. The prefix “in” in intransitive means “not.” We can think of the subject as no longer in transit, unless they fly first-class and have grown indifferent to the plaintive cries of those in the second-class section, whose seats are marked with a button called “Recline,” which, if you look carefully you will see contains the wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap word of our trilogy. But more of that later, and hopefully less of these long, complicated sentences that are really just rants decked out in commas.



At this point, the reader may be thinking, “This is easy.” Think again. You’ve stepped into one of the muddiest parts of the slough.



Did you lie down in bed last night? Tell me about it. I lied in bed. Well, that may be true, but it’s not the past tense of the “lie” known as rest. Okay, I laid in bed. Laid what, my friend? You see how easy it is to get stuck in the mud. The correct answer is “I lay in bed last night.” Many people are disturbed to wake up and discover they slept all night with what can also be a transitive verb.



To avoid disturbation, use a synonym like “recumb.”


Harold: (at the dinner table) Excuse me, Lydia. I’m not feeling well. I think I need to recumb.


Lydia: (running for the bucket) Here, use this.


Harold: No, dear, I need to find a place to support most of my body in a somewhat horizontal position.


Lydia: That sounds supine.



Lay, the second leaf on our word shamrock lie-lay-lie, means to place or put something somewhere, often in a place you have completely forgotten about. Since it’s perfectly acceptable to lay your head on your pillow, people often say, “I’m going to lay down.” Unless they are planning to lay down their burdens, this is incorrect. If they are planning to lay down their burdens, perhaps you could show a little sympathy and not try to correct their grammar.



The ubiquitous “people” that we have all heard so much about often point to Bob Dylan’s song “Lay, Lady, Lay” as the first of many songs leading to decline of the English language. What these “people” don’t know, and I didn’t know myself until a few minutes ago, was that Dylan’s favorite hen, Lady, was one of the most productive hens ever not recorded. When she hit a rough spot in her career, Dylan wrote this song to encourage her. He thought a change of venue, his big brass bed, would do the trick. Apparently, many chicks were laid there.



That little known “fact” brings us to our third word “lie.” As far as information goes, this is dis- or mis-. A lie is to the truth as a politician is to his or her campaign promises: there is no connection. Many people lie; I lied once myself, but I didn’t inhale.



Quibblers may squabble or prattle or babble over exceptions, other meanings, and other uses of  lie-lay-lie. Brabble on. The English language is full of exceptions, ergo ipso facto hokey pokey, it is an exceptional language.






Image courtesy: Flickr by graymalkn at http://flickr.com/photos/22244945@N00/3565234041.




Simple past




Only in grammar

can you guarantee

a past, present, and future

that is perfect.



I have had my share

of that perfection,

but yesterday,

the verbs were restless.

Some sprouted –ings

and flew around the room

as nouns

as if flying were a thing

to be desired.



The rest,

tired of being active,

pulled on their participles

and just stood there,

describing things.



Some of the nouns,

envious of all the action,

broke into a dictionary

grabbed suffixes willy-nilly

and put them on like tails

to strut among the verbs





So many things were


And while much of it

was clearly progressive,

I sat in that hubbub

and longed for my

simple past.

There’s mistakes everywhere (Hint: There’s one here)


If you caught the mistake up there in the title of the post, all I can say is, “Look at you all smart and grammarous!”

No doubt you’ve seen or heard this kind of error before. And you’re probably thinking that it is the contraction “there’s” that throws people off. No one would say, “There is mistakes,” right? Maybe, but I suspect there’s more to it than that.

What is missing in the title? It’s the word “are.” In its place is an apostrophe and the letter “s.” You’ve probably noticed a lot of “are’s” are missing lately. More and more people on TV, in the classroom, and on the internet are using a plural noun with “there’s.” Why?

Where are all those “are’s” we used to have?

Oddly, or suspiciously, or perhaps nefariously, the Japanese also use the word “are” when they write in Roman characters (romaji). It  means “that over there.” I don’t have any hard proof yet, but my best sources have led me to believe that not only are Americans smuggling our “are’s” into Japan but the Japanese mafia (yakuza) has bots combing the internet to capture “are’s” that are the replaced with that increasingly familiar apostrophe followed by the lonely  “s.” These captive words are taken to underground factories where Japanese engineers genetically alter the letters, cruelly bending them into shapes that looks like this: あれ. Using an electrical current, they modify the pronunciation until the only sound the word can make is ah-reh. These former verbs are sold on the black market for mere pennies (or mere yen) to be used as demonstratives! You heard me right. That powerful friend of pronouns, that magician of linking, that word that keeps people dancing right now, that verb is now at the beck and call of every pointing finger of every tour guide on every bus in Japan!

I know this is the kind of shocking exposé you’d expect from The New York Times, not a family friendly blog like this. But I felt that someone needed to bring it to the world’s attention.

What can you do? Write your U.S. representative or contact the nearest Japanese Embassy. Let them know we won’t stand for that. Remember, our are’s are ours.

Was this once an American verb? Sadly, we'll never know. It only speaks Japanese now.

To All the Real Mothers Out There


Both of my children are adopted.  Our first-born is now our second child, and our second child is the first-born. It’s okay if you need to re-read the last sentence. When you give birth to children, this kind of thing is impossible; the rules are fixed. With adoption, there are no formulas. Birth order in an adopted family is based on when the child is birthed into your family.

Let me explain. Our youngest was adopted first. The second day after the birth, my husband and I went to the hospital to get our first-born child. The birth mother chose us to be the adoptive parents after viewing a group of portfolios she was given by the adoption agency.  I suppose, for precision’s sake, we could call her the birth-to-the-second-day-mother, which would make me the third-day-on-mother, but I ‘ll talk more about names in a moment.

When we arrived at the obstetrics ward, we met not only the birth mother but her mother and grandmother as well. No one could speak. Our nervous smiles held back the wild joy we felt; their smiles held back a fierce pain. When that young woman placed her baby in my arms, the pronouns all changed, and every one of us began to cry. We stood in a circle, each struck dumb in different ways. Only the social worker could speak, so she offered a prayer.

Normally, even in adoptive families, people do not  upset the chronological birth order, but we did. The first child was three when we adopted the second who was five. Some things are more important than birth order, like love.

We were living in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, when we found out about our second child.  We had to travel  the full length of Japan to an orphanage in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture. We never met the birth mother.

From the beginning, both children knew that they were adopted. We were careful to use the proper terms and explain that they had a birth mother and a birth father, but now we were their mommy and daddy, and we loved them very much.

What are we three mothers involved in these children’s lives to call ourselves? Birth mother fits the other two women, but then what am I, the “after birth mother” (too messy), or the “life mother” (more appropriate for a goddess), or simply “mother” (what I generally use.)

The word that has been raising its hand and waving it wildly in order to get our attention is  that four-letter word, “real,” as in, “Will the real mother, please stand up.”  If by this term we mean the woman who carried the child and gave birth, no small gift, then I am not the real mother. Each of us can have only one of those. The two women who gave life to my children are real mothers who physically sheltered and nurtured them nine months, and then willingly went through the pain of childbirth knowing they would release these beautiful babies to strangers. They were, and are, much more than mere incubators of my joy. Only those who are real can pay such a price.  I love and appreciate these mothers though one I have never met one and the other only once for a few minutes.

It is difficult for our language to accommodate the idea that children can have two real mothers. In the plainest use of  language, it is contradictory. Two parallel lines can never intersect, something we’ve known since Euclid. In an Euclidean grammar, the lines are clearly drawn: there can be only one real mother, and the other must be the birth mother or the adoptive mother, depending on who claims the title of “real.”

There is a geometry besides Euclid’s, however, where these parallel lines do not exist. In elliptical geometry, all lines on a sphere eventually meet. I choose to use a grammar based on that, so I can say without hesitation that there can be two real mothers–the one who gave birth and the one who adopted.


“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled.

(from The Velveteen Rabbit)