Is “As I Lay Dying” Grammatically Incorrect?

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Musician Sufjan Stevens recently jumped on the “open letter to Miley Cyrus” bandwagon with a tongue-in-cheek critique of her grammar in the song “Get It Right.” He expresses specific concern over the line “I been laying in this bed all night long.” He notes that the “lay” form “should only be used when there is an object, i.e. ‘I been laying my tired booty in this bed all night long.’”

So far, so good. In basic terms, “lay” is for situations where something is set down by something else—“I lay the papers on the desk,” “Lay down your weapons.” If you’re talking about something just being there in a set down position, the verb is the intransitive “lie”—“Now the papers lie there in a pile,” “Now the weapons lie on the ground.”

Sufjan is also right to tell Cyrus not to worry, that “we all make mistakes.” The lay/lie distinction is one of those grammar dinosaurs that even the most pedantically uptight sticklers have trouble with sometimes. Sufjan reassures her that “even Faulkner messed it up.”

But did he? The comment links to a blog entry from the AMA Manual of Style on Faulkner’s use of “lay.” Though at first it may seem that the title of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is incorrect (what could be more intransitive than someone lying there dying?), the entry points out that here “lay” is actually the correct past tense of “lie.” (I know. Could these rules make it any more complicated?) So there is nothing wrong with the title.

What the article takes issue with is a sentence from the novel “you lay you down and rest you.” Obviously, this is in the vernacular and not to be taken as textbook grammatical, and yes, “the correct form of the sentence would use the intransitive verb: ‘You lie down.’” But here, even within the context of this non-standard dialect, Faulkner follows the rule. The verb “lay” does take an object in “you lay you down,” and the object is “you.” Not much different from “now I lay me down to sleep,” a sentence even the strictest red pen will pass over without a second glance.

So let’s leave Faulkner out of this. If you want, you can take it up with Bob Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”) or Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally”). But it’s probably time we all just laid our tired bootys down and started focusing on more important matters, such as, what is the proper plural of “booty”?

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