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ENGLISH EXPLAINED: Bob Dylan and the lying lady


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Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 5/2019 vom 10.04.2019

Unser Kolumnist hat nicht den geringsten Zweifel daran, dass Dylan seinen Nobelpreis verdient hat. Einer seiner Songtitel bringt ihn allerdings zum Verzweifeln.


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In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in ...

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... Literature. It was quite a feat for a rock musician, but, of course, Bob Dylan is not just any musician. He’s a modern-day poet, the voice of a generation, a revolutionary. The accolade made perfect sense to me.

However, it’s a good thing that one of the criteria for receiving the award wasn’t grammar. Had it been, Dylan might not have been so lucky. Why? In one of his many famous songs, old “Zimmy” (Bob Dylan’s birth name was Robert Allan Zimmermann) commits a common error.

The song I’m referring to is “Lay, Lady, Lay,” from his 1969 albumNashville Skyline : The first line is “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed…” The lyrics are certainly seductive, but, unfortunately, Dylan used the wrong verb.

You see, in the song, Dylan is essentially telling his lover: “Lie down; make yourself comfortable on my bed.” Well, that’s all fine and good, but he should have used the verb “to lie,” not “to lay.”

So why did Dylan get this wrong? Simply because “lie, lady, lie” doesn’t have the same ring to it? Whatever the case, differentiating between “to lie” and “to lay” has always bedeviled not only learners of English, but also native English speakers.

“To lie” is translated asliegen . It is an intransitive verb, which means it takes no object, and its correct conjugation islie ,lay ,lain . Here are a few examples: “After work, I often lie on the sofa;” “Yesterday, when I got home, I lay on the floor instead;” “I have never lain on a sofa at IKEA.”

“To lay” is translated aslegen and, contrary to “lie”, it’s a transitive verb, which means that it always takes an object. The correct conjugation islay ,laid ,laid . Again, here are a few examples: “I always lay the baby in his bed after lunch;” “Yesterday, I laid the baby down at one o’clock;” “I have laid the baby down and hope he goes to sleep now.”

What often causes confusion is that the form “lay” exists in the conjugation of both verbs: The present form of “to lay” (“I always lay the baby down at one o’clock”) is the same as the past form of “to lie” (“Yesterday, I lay on the sofa”).

So, basically, Dylan could politely ask the lady to please lie on his bed — or he could take action and lay her on the bed himself. He certainly can’t ask her to “lay” across his big brass bed.

I suppose we’ll never know why Dylan made the mistake or whether he even knew he’d made one. I guess we’ll let him keep that Nobel Prize, though. And I know that I, at least, will continue to sing, “Lay, lady, lay,” when that song comes on. But Mr. Dylan, if you’re reading this, you’ve been put on notice, sir!

CHAD SMITH
Originally from New York City, Chad Smith is a freelance journalist and English teacher who now lives in Hamburg.


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