D.T.’s astute observation

In class yesterday, the subject of “disappearing” grammar came up: specifically, the distinction between lie and lay.

Lay takes an object (or used to, back in the day). Lie does not take an object.

So: You lie down, but you lay something down:  

S V  A  
SUBJECT VERB  ADVERB  
I lie down.  
       
S V  O  A
SUBJECT VERB OBJECT ADVERB
I lay the book on the table.

Therefore: you can lay yourself down, but you can’t lay down!

During our discussion, I wrote the first line of a classic children’s bedtime prayer on the board and analyzed its parts.

“Now I lay me down to sleep”
S V  O A
SUBJECT VERB OBJECT ADVERB
I lay me down [now]
compare to:
S V  A  
SUBJECT VERB ADVERB  
I lie down  

The reason it’s OK to say “I lay me down” but not OK to say “I’m going to lay down” is that “lay” requires an object, and in the sentence “Now I lay me down to sleep,” “me” is the object.

This brings me to DT’s astute observation, which he posed in the form of an astute question:

Why is “me” an object, not a complement?

DT pointed out that in SVC sentences the subject and the complement refer to the same thing:

S V  C
SUBJECT LINKING VERB COMPLEMENT
SUBJECT = or ≠ COMPLEMENT
Something is (or is not) something
I am a student
I am an instructor
I am intelligent
I am [not] a student
I am [not] an instructor
I am [not] intelligent

In all cases above, the subject and the complement refer to the same thing.

[Adding the adverb “not” changes nothing. You can tell me that you are a student, or you can tell me that you are not a student; it doesn’t matter. In either case you are talking about yourself.]

DT’s observation: in “Now I lay me down to sleep,” “I” and “me” refer to the same thing, so “me” should be considered a complement, not an object.

Good point!

DT has brought to light an important exception to the SVC-SVO rule:

In SVO sentences like “I lay me” or “I hurt myself,” the subject and the object refer to the same thing.

S V  C  
SUBJECT LINKING VERB COMPLEMENT  
Something is something  
I am a student  
 I  am a good writer  
 I  am intelligent  
       
S V  O  A
SUBJECT VERB OBJECT ADVERB
I lay the book on the table
I throw the ball
I like pizza  
I like myself  
He likes himself  
She likes herself  
I lay myself down
I lay [me??] down

When the subject is also the object of the verb, the subject and the object do refer to the same thing. In this case we use a reflexive pronoun:

Personal pronoun Reflexive pronoun
I, me, my, mine myself
you, your, yours yourself
 it, its  itself
he,  him, his himself
she, her, hers herself
we, us, our, ours ourselves
they, them, theirs themselves

DT did a great job picking up on this exception and pointing it out to the class. Good work, and thank you!

NOTE #1: Technically, “Now I lay ME down to sleep” is incorrect. The correct pronoun these days is “myself.” But “Now I lay myself down to sleep” is a dreary formulation, which has no magic. I assume that the poet’s decision to use “me” instead of “myself” is a case of poetic license.

NOTE #2: This Masters Thesis (“Reflexivity on the Move: An Historical Study on the Reflexive Pronouns Herself and Himself”) reports that Old English, which people spoke long before “Now I lay me down to sleep” was written, used the word “me” where we would say “myself.” In Old English “I see me” was correct.

NOTE #3: “Lay” is called a transitive verb, “lie” intransitiveShort online quiz on transitive and intransitive verbs – with answers – here.mergecells

AND SEE:
SVO v. SVC
5 + 2: the 7 ‘canonical’ English sentences
3 ways to combine the 7 sentence patterns
10 basic sentence patterns in the English language
SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence
DT’s astute observation (reflexive pronouns)

A short overview of English syntax by Rodney Huddleston

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