“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.

Shine a light

I have Elton John running through my head at the moment, since typing those three words. Sorry if I’ve earwormed anyone else.

There are two verbs that many people have trouble conjugating and using correctly. (Okay, there are many, many more than two. But I’m talking about only two today.) There’s shine the transitive verb, which conjugates shine/shined/shined, and there’s shine the intransitive verb, which conjugates shine/shone/shone. Continue reading “Shine a light”

Lie, Lady, Lie

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? We all know Dylan’s song — it’s “Lay Lady Lay,” with no commas (although there should be, rightfully), and the verb form is incorrect, but hey. Dylan.

Because who needs grammar when you're Bob Dylan?
Because who needs grammar when you’re Bob Dylan?

By request (you know who you are!), I’m revisiting lie/lay. I’ve written at least two usage tips about this at G+, but now my explanation will be immortalized here at the blog. (Until someone nukes the site, anyway.) So, without further ado . . .

Lie is an intransitive verb. That means there’s no direct object acted upon by the subject of the verb. In other words, you don’t lie a book on a table. (That sounds ridiculous, too, doesn’t it?) The forms of lie are lie, lay, and lain. I lie down when I’m tired. I lay down for a while yesterday afternoon. I have lain down on many occasions. (I won’t go into the discussion of the propriety of “down” in this construction. Clearly, one can’t lie up, but there is the phrase “laid up,” which is an idiomatic expression meaning “unable to function due to an injury or illness,” often equating to “lying down because standing up is painful.” Gotta love it, don’t we?)

Lay is a transitive verb. That means it takes a direct object, the thing being acted on by the subject of the verb. The action is being transferred (transitive, transfer — see?) to the object. The forms of lay are lay, laid, and laid. I lay the shirt on a towel on the table, because I don’t have an ironing board. (I’m acting on that shirt by laying it on the table.) I laid a book on that table yesterday, and now I can’t find it. I have laid things all over this house, for that matter. Some dialects use “lay” for “lie” and add a reflexive pronoun, like this: “I lay myself down.” It’s even in a very common bedtime prayer, in a slightly different form: “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

I lie, you lie, she/he/it lies, they lie, we lie are the present-tense (root) forms for “lie.”

I lay, you lay, she/he/it lay, they lay, we lay are the simple past forms for “lie.” “The dog lay motionless in the middle of the street.” Note there is no -s on the end of this form. She lay, he lay, it lay.

I have lain, you have lain, she/he/it has lain, they have lain, we have lain are the past participle forms for “lie.” (Note that only the third-person singular takes “has” as the auxiliary verb; all others take “have.”)

I lay, you lay, she/he/it lays, they lay, we lay are the present-tense (root) forms for “lay.” Note the s on the end of the third-person form: She lays, he lays, it lays. “The dog lays a bone at its master’s feet.” It’s easy to confuse this with “lay” (the past tense of “lie”) if you’re not paying attention to the meaning.

I laid, you laid, she/he/it laid, they laid, we laid are the simple past forms for “lay.”

I have laid, you have laid, she/he/it has laid, they have laid, we have laid are the past participle forms for “lay.” The same as with “lain,” only the third-person singular form takes “has.”

Now that I’ve laid that all out for you, I might lie down for a bit.