Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bane of my existence: Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.

You may perchance think I am being a tad extreme when I vehemently state that transitive and intransitive verbs are the bane of my existence. In fact, the words “over zealous” may come to mind. I fully acknowledge the following blatant misuse(s) of the English language for dramatic purposes.

You. Do not. Under. Stand.

Allow me to explain.

I am a writer. Throughout both my academic and artistic careers, this small, niggling thing has seemed to follow me around like a nasty case of halitosis. And yes, it is has been just as unpleasant. But let’s begin with the beginning, shall we?

Intransitive Verb: A verb which takes no direct object.
            Example: Subject + Verb = Complete Sentence.
                        Example: I (subj.) rise (verb).
It is a simple example and not a complicated sentence, but it serves the point. The verb doesn’t need a direct object to complete the sentence.

Transitive Verb: A verb which needs a direct object to be complete.
            Example: Subject + Verb + Direct Object = Complete Sentence.
                        Example: I (subj.) raise (verb) the bar (d.obj.).

Most of us instinctively know when to use a transitive verb, and when we need an intransitive. One typically does not hear others saying, “I rise the bar.” If you’re like me, it sends cold chills down your spine and makes your hackles rise, much like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. Or a cat yowling off-key. Or a banshee screaming at the top of her lungs.

So then, you may be wondering, why are transitive and intransitive verbs the bane of my existence? Well, since you asked so nicely, and care so much, I’ll tell you:

Lie vs. Lay

Oh, good God in heaven above, lie vs. lay! It makes me want to gouge out my eyes, much like Jocasta when she finds out she married and bore offspring with her son. This is where the fact that I am a writer comes into play.

I write fiction. As such, I read. Fiction. A lot of it. I have taken multiple workshops and creative writing classes. Where is this going? From song lyrics (Snow Patrol, I am indeed looking at you—and no, I will not lay here) to published and acclaimed novels, people make this mistake. In every single workshop or class I have taken, someone, usually multiple someones, and yes, this includes the professors/teachers/workshop leaders, makes this mistake.

What do they do, all these innocent people, that makes me want to find them and bludgeon them with a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?

They use lay, a transitive verb, when they should be using lie, the intransitive form of the verb! They write horrid, nasty things like:

            The boy laid down on the soft earth, gazing soulfully up at the star-speckled sky. (Except they usually leave off the hyphen, but that’s for another blog.)

Okay. Deep breath. Calm. I am centered in an ordered universe, where rules are upheld, and laws to which we must confine ourselves, adhered.

Right. So then—what should it be? It’s easy, really.

Lie is intransitive, so it takes no direct object. What that means is:

            Example: The boy has lain down on the soft earth.
            Example: I lie down. You lie down. We lie down together.

Lay is the transitive form of the verb, so it does take a direct object.

            Example: The boy laid the book down.
                        The boy (subj.) laid (verb) the book (d.obj.) down.
            Example: He laid me down. I laid the quilt down. She lays the Glock 17C down on the dresser. The mother laid her son softly upon the heather.
                        He (subj.) laid (verb) me (d.obj.) down.

See? Quite straightforward. It has simply become so accepted to use lay as a blanket verb, because we as a people have chosen to dislike the word lie—why? Perhaps because it reminds us of that rather nasty verb we use when we aren’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God.

Whatever the case, I hope that this alleviates some confusion regarding verbs, transitive or intransitive. Most specifically those absolutely-NOT-interchangeable verbs lie and lay.

Go ahead. Google it.

I dare you.


  1. Interesting read! And I think I'm going to learn a few things here! Thanks!

  2. The dominatrix lay with her ocelot husband.

    The dominatrix laid her ocelot husband on the table.

  3. Brain Master, your examples make me smile. And you remind me that lay may in fact be used as the past tense of lie, in lieu of lied.