Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Books That Lay Eggs

Someone (author, editor, publisher, or all of the above) really laid an egg with the title of this book.

The verb lay is a transitive verb. Transitive verbs require two arguments: a subject and a direct object. Which leaves me wondering, what did the dead lay?

And more importantly, how?

In addition to requiring a particular number of arguments, different verb types also maintain different semantic restrictions.

In linguistics, these restrictions are monitored by what are known as theta roles (which equate to the number of arguments required by the verb). Every verb is encoded with a minimum of one theta role and a maximum of three. Theta roles are filled by words or phrases that carry certain thematic relations. Thematic relations being the semantic relation between an argument and its predicate (verb).

The verb lay mandatorily has two theta roles to fill, which are most commonly filled by words or phrases with the thematic relations agent and theme. An agent is an initiator or doer of an action. A theme is an entity that undergoes an action, is experienced or is perceived.

By the thematic role definition, the verb lay requires an animate subject because an inanimate subject cannot initiate an action. So I pose the question again, how can the dead lay? Dead are inanimate by definition; they are not capable of initiating an action.

If, by any chance, the title's use of lay is as the past tense of the verb lie it still doesn't jibe semantically...unless, of course, you believe in the ability of the dead to rise.

Click here for more on the distinction between "lay vs. lie".

6 comments:

Faldone said...

You don't suppose it could be past tense. Did you read the book? It might clear up the ambiguity. BTW, in informal studies (i.e., listening to people talk) I have determined that present tense lay is taking over the function of irregular lie in well over half the population. I suspect conflict with regular lie as a contributory factor.

Laura Payne said...

Faldone - I did think about the possibility of it being past tense (see the last sentence); however, I did not address the possibility of the context of the book playing a role in the title...good point. I have not read the book and this post is based solely on the title. Perhaps the book is about grave robbers. I apologize to the author, editor and publisher for my lack of further inquiry. Thank you for bringing this to my attention Faldone.

Faldone said...

Or it could be about the dead before they are buried, e.g., dead soldiers on a battlefield.

4ndyman said...

Or it could be zombie porn. Excuse me: "Undead Erotica."

Laura Payne said...

4ndyman - How did I not think of that possibility? Thanks for the laugh.

Anonymous said...

Now I lay me down to sleep. :-P Here I lie undisturbed.

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