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September 10th, 2003

Lay and lie / rest bit?

by Barbara Wallraff

The Reverend Canon Daniel S. Weir, of East Aurora, New York, writes, “Increasingly I hear ‘lay’ when ‘lie’ is called for. I’ve even heard it on NPR. Not long ago when I asked a student to read a passage that included ‘lying,’ he read it as ‘laying.’ Is this usage becoming so widespread that it is pointless to resist?”

“Everybody does it” is just a weasely excuse in many arenas of life. In language, though, it’s a legitimate defense—but not everybody does misuse “lay” for “lie.” The people who can keep these two verbs straight tend to be well-spoken, and they notice it when other people mix the pair up. You’re a case in point.

I could give you a dozen reasons why it’s easy to confuse the two words, starting with the fact that “lay” isn’t just a verb in its own right—it’s also the past tense of “lie.” But instead, why don’t I explain how easy it is to get the distinction right. Except in a few special situations, such as nautical usage (“The boat lay at anchor”), the verb “lay” takes an object: One lays something or someone down. “Lie” doesn’t: One lies down, period. And so, “Once I lay the dictionary open to the page with the usage note about this, I’m going to lie down and take a nap.” “Last night when I laid me down to sleep (‘laid’ is the past tense of ‘lay,’ and here ‘me’ is the object of the verb), the dog came into bed and lay on my feet.”

Mara Filo, of Beverly Hills, Mich., writes, “A teenage acquaintance recently told me in an e-mail that she enjoyed the respite from schoolwork that summer vacation offered. But in all innocence she wrote that vacation was a nice ‘rest bit.’ When you think about it, it’s a better way to spell the concept. Are there other misspellings that actually clarify the meaning of a term? And when words are creatively misspelled, does the ‘improved’ version ever take over?”

Yes and yes—changes in standard English often begin as misunderstandings of one kind or another. Just now the misspelling “miniscule” is gaining on the traditional spelling “minuscule.” We’re all so used to miniatures and minimums and mini-skirts that “minuscule” may look strange. It is spelled that way because it entered English from Latin by a different route than “mini-” words. But dictionaries have started to include “miniscule,” and some call it a mere variant rather than “nonstandard” or a mistake. “Minuscule” is still preferred, and more common—but check back with me in 20 years and let’s see if that has changed.

“Rest bit” isn’t likely to overtake “respite” in our lifetimes. In searches of two online news databases, I found exactly one citation for “rest bit” used as your young friend used it. And that was in a transcript of a 1981 television news broadcast, which wouldn’t have been edited to the same standard as material intended for publication.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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