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A Word, Please: Laying out the difference between two verbs

Summertime is here, and with it come endless hours of sitting in the shade regretting all the years we spent baking in the sun.

Growing up in Central Florida, I was part of a community of British-Isles-descended folk who considered "laying out" a worthwhile way to spend hours and hours every week for eight or nine months out of the year.

The term "lay out" was so ubiquitous as to be unequivocal. It didn't mean to set out clothes for the following day. It didn't mean to explain a plan of action. It meant, as everyone in my little universe knew, to crisp your little English or Irish or Scottish hide in a scorching barrage of ultraviolet radiation.

These days, as I huddle indoors under layers of every skin-care product to ever to print the words "turn back the clock" on its packaging, I've had to fill the time with more indoorsy pursuits like pondering the grammar of the term "lay out."

Technically, this idiom flies in the face of the basic difference between "lay" and "lie." As any grammar book will tell you, "lay" is a transitive verb and "lie" is intransitive. This means that "lay" takes a direct object while "lie" does not (we're talking, of course, about the form of "lie" that means to recline and not the form that means to tell a fib).

A transitive verb is one whose action gets performed on a noun — something or someone. Compare the verbs "eat" and "sleep." In "He eats meat," the verb "eat" is transitive. You're eating something. Meat is the direct object. It's the thing upon which the action of the verb is being performed.

Now look at "He sleeps." There's no thing being slept by the sleeper, if you will. So this verb is intransitive.

Many verbs can be both. For example, instead of saying, "We ate dinner" you can just say "We ate." So "eat" can be either transitive or intransitive.

"Lay" is transitive. You do it to something. You lay the book on the desk. You lay your clothes on the bed. You lay your cards on the table. "Lie" is intransitive. If you're feeling tired, you lie down.

So the basic difference between "lay" and "lie" is easy: "Lay" takes an object and "lie" doesn't. But it gets harder in the past tense because the simple past tense of "lie" just happens to be "lay." Today I lie down, yesterday I lay down.

That's downright confusing. So here's how to get these verbs' past tense forms right: Whenever you want to use "lie" or "lay" in the past tense, just check a dictionary. Next to "lie" you'll see "lay, lain," indicating that "lay" is the simple past tense and "lain" is the past participle (the one that goes with "have," as in, "I have lain").

Next to "lay," you'll see just "laid," meaning that the simple past tense and the past participle are one and the same (as in, "I laid the book on the table" and "I have laid the book on the table"). True, you could try to memorize what I just said. But trust me when I tell you it's easier to just look them up.

So what does all this tell us about the term "lay out," in which there is no direct object? Well, this term is different because it's a phrasal verb. Just as "throw" is grammatically different from "throw up," "lay out" is a special expression with a special meaning.

Most dictionaries indicate that this phrasal verb is transitive, with meanings like laying out your clothes or laying out your boxing opponent. The sunbathing definition, in which it's used intransitively, isn't mentioned.

But considering all the other absurd terms I heard growing up in the Sun Belt — terms like "ham salad" and "Jimmy Buffet" — I suppose saying "lay out" isn't as ridiculous as actually doing it.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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