“Underlay” is the underlying issue

I won’t rehash the lay/lie issue, except to remind you that “to lay” is transitive (taking an object) and “to lie” is intransitive (not taking an object). The problem here today is that “underlay” and “underlie” are both transitive verbs, so knowing how lay/lie work will do you no good whatsoever except to help you know how to spell the tenses.

(Full disclosure: I got myself so confused during a recent project that just today I emailed the client and told them to ignore the changes I’d made to “underlain,” because it turned out I was wrong. I own my mistakes.)

So. We have “to underlay,” meaning “to put something under another thing” or “to provide a base or a support for a thing.” And we have “underlie,” meaning “to be under or below something” or “to be the basis of or support for a thing.”

Underlay, underlaid, underlaid, underlaying (cf. “lay”)

Underlie, underlay, underlain, underlaying (cf. “lie”)

Let’s give this a shot, shall we? Say we have a construction crew, and they’re working on the flooring in a given room. They underlay the carpet padding on top of the plywood subfloor, before putting down the carpeting.

This leads us to saying “Carpet padding underlies the carpeting proper.”

Let’s take it another step, into the simple past tense. Yesterday the crew underlaid the padding for the carpeting. The padding underlay the carpeting.

One more step, into past perfect/pluperfect tense. The crew had underlaid the padding last month but didn’t get to the carpeting until today. Years from now, a CSI specialist will note that the padding had underlain the carpeting. (That’s a crap sentence, but at least the tense is right. Making up exemplars is a pain in the arse.)

Now, to the thing that tripped me up so badly: what do we use when we want to say something formed the basis of something else, as in provided support? As in: “The scent was [underlaid/underlain] by a sour note.” Well, that sour note wasn’t put there as a support; it forms the basis for that scent. We want underlain here. Turn the sentence inside out by making it active: “A sour note underlies the scent.” It provides the basis for it by virtue of its existence.

If someone or something physically places a thing to provide support for another thing, they underlay it. If a thing provides support by its existence, it underlies the thing it supports. Both verbs are transitive. Figuring out the tenses isn’t so difficult, once you have that difference in your head.

Look for the helpers (verbs, that is)

I’ve seen this issue popping up in various places of late, so I decided to explain how to avoid it in your own work. When you want to combine tenses in a sentence to talk about something that’s been going on for a while and continues to do so, you have to be careful about the helping (auxiliary) verbs. Let me show you.

“They had and are still being treated that way today.”

What the hypothetical writer wanted to say was that a kind of treatment had occurred in the past, and is still happening now. But what they wrote is ungrammatical and unclear. They had what? What does that “had” connect to, syntactically? Is there an object missing (what did they have)? Is it supposed to connect to “treated” somehow? “They had treated” surely isn’t what the writer meant. Look at the correction that follows.

“They had been and are still being treated that way today.”

[Here is where I point out that I am creating sentences as examples of a particular grammatical problem. They aren’t great writing. I might suggest an edit if I encountered either of them in a project. However, they serve the purpose for which they were created.]

In this particular case, we need to say “been” to go with the “had” in the first part of the compound verb, and hold on to the “being” in the second part. “Had been” and “are being” both fit with the past participle “treated.” We can’t get away with just the “had” auxiliary (you recognize it, right? The past form of “have”?) when we want to also use “are being treated” in the same sentence.

Now, here’s something to consider. If you don’t use “had,” you can use the auxiliary “be” in the forms “were” and “are being” with the past participle “treated.”

“They were and are still being treated that way today.”

It’s all the same verb, “be.” It’s just in different forms: were, are being. Bigger trouble comes in when you want to use different auxiliaries with the same main verb, as with “had been” and “are being.” You’re using “have” and “be” with a conjunction, so you have to be cautious about their forms.

If you’re reading a news article or blog post and you stop after encountering such a construction because the meaning is unclear, examine it. Work out what should have been written instead. Chances are good there’s a verb form problem hidden in what is (or rather, what should be!) paired with the auxiliaries.

Now’s a good time to remind you of what those auxiliaries are. There are three main ones with conjugations, and nine modals. Here we go.

Be (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being)

Do (do, did, done)*

Have (have, has, had, having)

The modals are: can, could, may, might, ought to, shall, should, will, and would. These are not conjugated further. Can/could, may/might, shall/should, and will/would are already present/past forms. (And you wonder why we get so confused talking about when things happen, having to use a past form to discuss a future event . . .)

As always, if you have a question, please comment. I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Thanks for visiting.

*Hey, why isn’t “doing” in this list? Hmm . . . I wonder . . .