Sometimes, we mishear things, and from time to time, these mishearings can become part of our everyday vocabulary. The one I want to focus on today is probably one of the most complicated to explain why it’s wrong- to lay ahead.
You should always say “lay ahead” and not “lie ahead”.
Lay requires a subject, acting on an object. For example, a chicken might lay an egg, a builder might lay bricks, and a policeman could lay down the law.
Lie is something which you can do to yourself, you will lie down, or find something lying on the floor.
Lay is known as a transitive verb, something which requires a subject and an object. When something “lay ahead” it will be referring to something that gets offered to us.
Lying is in the past continuous or present continuous of lie.
“The rock was lying on the ground.”
“The rock is lying on the ground.”
“The rock lies on the ground.”
I’ll be honest here when researching for this article, I ended up getting a little bit confused myself. So don’t feel too bad if parts of this article are too much to handle.
Lying can also be another way of saying “not telling the truth”. An example of a homophone, words that sound the same but mean different things.
Lay and lie have the same root word. Legh, this is a Proto-Indo-European word that means “to lay”.
The Pro-Germanic people took that word and turned it into Lagojanan, which the old English turned into Lecgan- to cause to rest. And over time, it became lay.
“Lie” comes directly from the Proto-Indo-European “legh”.
Pretty cool how one root word can go down so many etymological pathways, and still come to an almost identical destination. also pretty cool how the English language is made up of aspects of other languages that used to exist but have since disappeared.
To lay can also have a very different meaning indeed. It can be another way of saying “had sex with”.
“My friend lay with his life the first time they met”.
This is known as a euphemism; a way for us to talk about sex (without having to refer to the action directly). And if you think this is new, think again.
If you read the bible, you will find several passages of one person laying with another.
Let’s be honest here, if a man is laying with a woman, chances are, they’re not doing it to paint each other’s toenails.
A common misconception that I need to get out of the way asap is “layman’s terms”.
Before I knew better, I used to think that this term was talking about people who laid bricks. These people were usually not educated for too long, and therefore would be doing manual labour most of the time.
However, a layman is actually just a member of the church who is less than a priest—basically, anyone who goes to church but does not work for it.
This word has a totally different etymology.
The odd thing about the English language, some homophones can have utterly different roots.
Most people will be okay if you get it wrong
Maybe I’m just a bit thick, but all of the rules that you need to remember can make it rather complicated and hard to understand. But does it really matter?
If you say “lie ahead” will the universe implode? I highly doubt it. And most of the time, people will know what you’re talking about. If you’re just having a casual conversation, this kind of stuff won’t matter.
The only time when it will matter is if you have to write some sort of academic paper, or if you’re writing for a newspaper, magazine, or professional blog.
We’ve looked at lay vs lie, but now let’s delve into the other part of the phrase- ahead.
If asked to define “ahead”, many of us would likely say that if something is “ahead”, it’s in front of us, maybe a bit of distance, but in the direction.
When something “lay ahead”, it’s usually not talking about any kind of physical direction, but rather, talking about time.
The etymology of “ahead” is made of two parts, a (which means in/at) and head (which means lead). That’s why we would say “headteacher”.
In the English language, there are usually 1000s of ways that you can say the same phrase. And “lay ahead” is no different.
“Awaits” means that something is waiting for you, this will usually be used when talking about abstract nouns such as love or opportunity.
“Draws near” is when the thing that lay ahead is nearly coming to us, and we shall receive it soon.
“You can expect” is a more formal way of saying it. This should be said when the information is essential and shouldn’t be decorated with poetic language.
Lie in wait
A phrase that uses the word “lie” but has gone out of style is “lie in wait”. I want this back, because it’s awesome.
To lie in wait means to hold until the right moment comes about, and when it does, attack. It makes us sound like we’re some sort of lion or another cool animal.
Please note that you lie in wait, and you don’t lay in wait, and you’re not putting anything on the ground, other than maybe yourself. This prevents it from being a transitive verb.
Bit of a tangent, but worth mentioning.
“Lie ahead” is something that people like to say but is actually incorrect, we should be saying “lay ahead”. This is because lay is a transitive noun, which requires a subject and an object.
When good things lay ahead, they (object) will have been given to us by someone else (subject).
The confusion does go to show how confusing the English language can be. But thankfully most speakers of it will know what you’re talking about, no matter which version you use.
Unlike lay, lie doesn’t require an object.