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The title of Joan Didion's book Play It as It Lays has thrown me off since I first heard it. Shouldn't it be Play It as It Lies?

I have read through a related post on the subject of lay vs. lie and I find no justification in the accepted answer -- "lay is transitive, lie is intransitive." The use in the title is intransitive, so it seems lies should be used.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Language Log's Arnold Zwicky addressed the strained grammar of this golf idiom[?, see edit]:

Fixed expressions, from tightly constrained idioms through more open formulas, sometimes require features from non-standard or informal varieties; they just can't be elevated. How's the boy? 'How are you? How are you doing?', as a conventional greeting to a man, has to have a reduced auxiliary. And play it as it lays totally resists the standard verb form lies.

He gives some other examples of grammatically deficient idioms and concludes:

If you don't want to sound like someone who would ever use non-standard [grammar constructs], then you'll have to forgo this bit of conventionalized irony and manufacture your own irony from the raw materials available in the language [...] Play it as it lays, or get out of this game.

A trusty Ngram shows play it as it lies (red) may have come first, but play it as it lays (blue), superceded it in print use—most likely as a result of Didion's choice of title:

http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/chart?content=play%20it%20as%20it%20lays%2Cplay%20it%20as%20it%20lies&corpus=0&smoothing=3&year_start=1880&year_end=2000

So I guess the answer to your question is yes, and no.

[Edit]

Well, I'm confused. @mmyers' comment prompted a more careful search that indicates these phrases may be unrelated. As mentioned in my comment, I found no golf-related uses of play it as it lays prior to Didion's novel. Those appearing afterward seem to be influenced by the novel's title or used in attempts to explain the phrase. Some argue the title is a cardgame/gambling reference. Several gambling references in the novel support this. I'm not sure I can unpack it all, so I offer these links for any other attempts:

D Magazine's take on it
Beyond the Zeitgeist's two cents
Yahoo! Answers' "resolved" question

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5  
This is probably due to "lays" rhyming with "plays," reinforcing the solecism. –  The Raven Apr 19 '11 at 17:56
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Interesting. I've been a golfer for many years and this is the first time I have ever heard "Play it as it lays." Now "play it as it lies", on the other hand, I hear almost every round. Are you absolutely certain that "lays" is the golf idiom? –  mmyers Apr 19 '11 at 21:00
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@mmyers: No, I'm not certain and should have checked this. You're right, before Didion's novel I can't find any golf references of play it as it lays. There are some afterwards, but they could be confusions resulting from the novel's title. It appears the play it as it lays idiom is a card game/gambling one. I will do a little more homework and edit my answer. –  Callithumpian Apr 19 '11 at 22:20

From informal research it appears that "Play it as it lays" is from playing craps--a gambling game both in casinos and in places hopefully secluded from the police.

If you believe (as I do) that correctness is situational, then lays is correct in this context, meaning "Deal with it" or "Play the hand you have been dealt [and don't complain]."

On the other hand, lies is correct for golf: "Play it as it lies" is SAEE (Standard American Edited English) and is probably used by wealthy and perhaps those with higher educational status.

One researcher I read suggested entering "Play it as it lies" in a search engine, so I did, and found golf references. I am an English professor, retired, and I can't afford to play golf. I don't gamble either--so I would use the phrase with lays in the metaphorical sense of "Deal with it.". I have no reason to use "Play it as it lies" except in a discussion such as this.

Regarding Joan Didion's novel title, she is clearly making use of language which is standard in context but would not be considered SAEE. The word edited (saEe) is important--distinguishing written vs. spoken language as well as other aspects of situation. Yes, Didion is a writer, but this is a novel and not non-fiction. Unless it is Creative Non-fiction, non-fiction tends to require SAEE unless quoting dialogue.

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+1 Nicely put. As another Prof--retired, I empathize. –  John Lawler Apr 2 '13 at 0:00

I agree with The Raven [comment made above] that "lays" sounds better, because of the assonance with the word "play." The question of that idiom is also addressed in an interesting article . I note that "lay, lady, lay" has the same problem of being incorrect, grammatically speaking, but many feel that it sounds better.

I think some poets and writers consciously or unconsciously choose not to use the word "lie" for the intransitive verb meaning "to recline," because of the other "lie" as in "telling a falsehood."

If I want to convey a pure meaning, I would prefer not to use a word that has another meaning that might cloud my intention.

In the case of the Dylan title "lie, lady, lie," those words might lead some to believe he is urging her to tell a falsehood on his big brass bed. The lyricist, to avoid confusion, prefers to violate a grammar rule rather than to muddy his meaning. After all, we know what he means, and we know what Didion was implying, and "lay" sure has a nice sound, doesn't it?

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+1 for assonance. That's a very important factor. With respect to lie/lay, this handout might be of interest. –  John Lawler Apr 1 '13 at 23:58

The golf rule is definitely "Played As It Lies".

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"Play it as it lays" is a poker expression.

When you are playing poker with wild cards, and you show your cards at the end of a hand, it is possible to have a hand that can be interpreted in more than one way, because wild cards are by nature ambiguous. House rules, i.e. the rules of the game that is being played, can either say that the hand is what you call it, or you play it as it lays: it is the strongest hand that can be built irrespective of what the player to whom the hand belongs calls it.

Example: I have a hand with 3 wild cards, and a Jack of Diamonds and an Ace of Spades. My opponent has a flush in Clubs.

Now, let's say that I CALL my hand a straight with one wild card being a 10, a "natural" Jack, another wild card being a Queen, the third wild card being a King, and then the natural Ace Of Spades: then I lose to the flush in Clubs.

But when I lay my cards on the table (see what I did there?), someone else says, "You know, with the Ace of Spades and three wild cards, you can also say that you have 4 aces - and four aces will beat a flush."

Now, again, my hand here is ambiguous: it's either a straight, or four aces. Some games operate under the principle that once I call this hand a straight, it is and remains a straight. OTHER games operate under the principle that if I call it a straight, but it can also be interpreted as four aces, then it is four aces, irrespective of what I called it.

So in the given example, under the rule that says the hand is what I call it, I would lose; but if the game says you "play it as it lays" then then I would win - even if I did not initially realize it.

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