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?