Lay vs lie & the trouble with “awhile”
by James Powell
Writing creatively requires a state of passion unrestricted by rules, a sense of boundary melting that shares borders with bar-hopping and slow dancing. This is why William Faulkner recounted, “One day I seemed to shut the door between me and all publisher’s addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write.” Hemingway expressed a similar urge: “Write drunk.” After all, it is when thus intoxicated that writers can abandon themselves to the alluring universes they create for themselves, each soft vowel and firm consonant a bare, radiant organ of love.”
No one has written more pungently of the day after than Dylan: “I took me a woman late last night. I’s three-fourths drunk she looked alright.” Once the first-draft ink stains dry, serious writers must return to last evening’s work, soberly attending to the discipline of what Hemingway called “saying no to a typewriter.” Even after having done so, however, too many unfortunate writers will send in manuscripts still reeking of their undisciplined hours.
Some of the most common blemishes—ones that will offend the sensibilities of most editors—involve shady relationships with the following two words:
Let’s take the juiciest one first. If you’re confused about the verbs lie and lay, you might write as follows:
“Hey, babe, what did you do last night?”
“Laid in bed all night.”
Does (s)he mean she lay in bed—resting in a supine position, or got laid all night, or is she a chicken who is laying eggs all night?
“No, I lied.”
Is she trying to say that she lay in a supine position or that she was not telling the truth?
To lie (as in bed) is an intransitive verb. You can lie in bed all night but cannot lie something (an egg) or someone (the Virgin Mary). The present tense is “I lie,” or “I am lying.” The past tense is “I lay,” or “I was lying.”
To lay is a transitive verb. You lay something (an egg in a pan or a book on the bed) or someone (your friend down on the bed). The present tense is “I lay (a cloth on the table),” or “I am laying (the table cloth).” The past tense is “I laid (the cloth on the table).”
Where you get laid is your affair, but when you get laid may be your grammarian’s affair, which brings us to our second oft-misused word: awhile, which is often confused for a while.
A while is a span of time, a noun; “I haven’t gotten laid for a while.”
Awhile, however, is an adverb: “It’s been awhile.”
Notice that a while follows a preposition (for), whereas awhile does not.
James Powell edits a broad range of works—novels, short fiction, creative nonfiction and magazine articles—some of which have been adapted into film.