August 2, 2010

Mad Men Don’t Lie

I’m pretty good when it comes to grammar, but my wife is better, as I’m reminded every time I misuse the word lay and she corrects me. Some bad grammar sticks out like a sore thumb for me, but lay/lie misuse goes past me every time. My wife never fails to catch it, and she seemed to be pointing out lay/lie misuse every time we watched Mad Men. We wondered whether it’s the fault of the actors, or if they’re saying the lines faithfully as they’re written.

I decided to turn it into a learning opportunity. If I could catch every use and misuse of lay and lie in every episode of Mad Men so far, surely that would pound the lesson so firmly in my brain that I will never confuse the words ever again.

And so I made the video embedded above. Here is a list of every quote, from each episode in the first three seasons, in the order they appear in the video:

2.10 Joan: “Go ahead. Lay down. I’ll keep the drunks away.” (incorrect)
3.06 Joan: “Go lay down.” (incorrect)
1.10 Peggy: “Maybe you need me to lay on your couch to clear that up for you again.” (incorrect)
2.05 Peggy: “Do you mind if I lay down?” (incorrect)
2.05 Peggy: “I have to lie down” (correct)
1.03 Betty: “I’m going to go and lay the kids’ food out.” (correct)
3.01 Pete: “I should just lay down and we should run together holding hands.” (incorrect)
3.08 Pete: “I’d lie in bed at night, hear horses going by.” (correct)
1.13 Pete: “I think I should lie down.” (correct)
2.02 Don: “I’m going to lie down for a minute.” (correct)
2.12 Don: “Can I take a shower and lie down?” (correct)
2.10 Don: “Do you want me to lay everything out for you?” (correct)
3.09 Don: “I’m going to go lie down.” (correct) [Note: The subtitles for episode 3.09 say that Don says “I’m gonna go lay down” which is incorrect. But it sounds a lot to me like he says “I’m going to go lie down,” so I gave him a pass.]
3.11 Don: “I’m going to lie down.” (correct)
3.12 Don: “Take a pill and lie down.” (correct)
2.08 Ken: “You need someone to lay down on the barbed wire so you can run over them.” (incorrect)
3.07 Henry: “Victorian ladies would get overwhelmed. Corsets and things. They’d need a place to lie down.” (correct)
1.04 Client: “I hate to be a pain in the ass, but if they didn’t just lay there so flat.” (incorrect)
3.03 Carla: “Maybe you should lie down. Sally!” (correct)
2.04 Sally: “Do you lay on top of her?” (incorrect)
2.11 Jane: “I lay on my pillow at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.” (incorrect)
2.03 Jennifer: “I need to lay down.” (incorrect)
2.04 Katherine: “And I don’t care if you have to lay there. Put your shoes on!” (incorrect)
2.04 Gerry: “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta lay down.” (incorrect)
3.12 TV: “Then Governor Connally, after slumping to the left for a moment, lay on the floor of the rear seats.” (incorrect) (correct) — My mistake. The reporter is speaking in past tense.

I originally included three clips that I later decided to remove:

In episode 3.01, Sal says, “Our worst fears lie in anticipation,” which is correct. But he’s quoting Balzac so I wasn’t sure if he should get credit for it. In fact, he even follows up the line by pointing out, “That’s not me. That’s Balzac.” (The actual Balzac quote is “Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.”).

In episode 3.05, Don uses the same Balzac quote after hearing Sal say it. Again, I was unsure whether or not to include it for the same reason. But I did like that the character he’s talking to replies, “Are you sure about that?”

In episode 3.09, Sal says, “I think if I get away from Lucky Strike and lay low from Roger for a day or two, everything will be fine.” I wasn’t sure if the common expression lay low is grammatically correct or not. So I looked it up. says that lay low means to overpower or defeat (as in “to lay low one’s attackers”). The phrase Sal should have used is lie low which means to conceal oneself (as in “Until the dispute is settled, you would do best to lie low.”). So Sal’s usage is technically incorrect. But “lie low” falls strangely on my ears, and lay low is a common enough expression that I couldn’t decide whether to give it a pass or not, so I chose to simply not include the clip at all.


Definitely the most pedantic. :-) Good work!

2.11 Jane: “I lay on my pillow at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.” (incorrect)

May be correct depending on context - is she describing a past event?

3.12 TV: “Then Governor Connally, after slumping to the left for a moment, lay on the floor of the rear seats.” (incorrect)

Sounds correct to me, again describing a past event.

That was an early stressor in our marriage. It took years for me to get it right most of the time. Now I can grill her on “lie low” vs. “lay low.”

The last one’s correct. It’s the past tense of lie. But lie/lay doesn’t bother me as much as number/amount, which is misused much more frequently.

Never seen Mad Men, but they do seem to spend a lot of time in bed, huh?

Jane was talking in present tense. She was composing a poem. I almost gave her a pass for that one as poetic license.

You’re right about the TV, though. D’oh!

See, I was hoping to get to the end of this post and see some charts!

If certain characters get it right most of the time (Don & Pete) and others get it wrong most of the time (Joan & Peggy), does that mean the actors are correcting/flubbing what the writers have written? Or does it mean the writers are writing some characters as more/less educated as others?

I’m leaning toward the latter because Don’s job requires a good command of the English language and the show seems to have reason to show the women as less educated. (Granted I’ve only seen two episodes.)

On the other hand, the incorrect closed captioning could indicate that the script was wrong and the actor fixed it on stage.

My wife gets this wrong every time as well, but I’ve never dared correct her. Marriage is all about compromise!

I don’t think I’ve ever heard “lay low” used to mean “lie low.” But maybe I’m autocorrecting it in my head. Certainly “lie low” used correctly is not uncommon in my experience.

And so the simple rule, for the less than persnickety among us: when in doubt, “lie”.

The last one was actually correct “Then Governor Connelly (or whoever it was) lay on the floor…” The reporter is telling a story in the past tense. Lay is the past tense of lie. So actually it was 13 - 12 in favor of correct.

I used to be a big-ol’ grammar nazi. I couldn’t stand it when someone would end a sentence with a preposition, or when I saw the incorrect there/their/they’re or its/it’s variant used (I still cringe every time I see a misused apostrophe- which happens basically every day).

The truth, however, is that it was my attitude that was wrong, not other people’s use of language. Ours is a living language, and it changes over time. That’s a good thing, because usually English moves in the direction of simplicity and ease of use (not always, of course- I was so annoyed when Miriam-Webster decided to include “commentate” and “orientate” in their lexicon- is there something wrong with comment and orient as verbs?)

What I mourn now is not how people misuse our language, but how much worse each succeeding generation seems to be at effectively getting their points across. Kids these days don’t know how to properly form an argument, and if they do get an idea worth sharing, fewer and fewer of them have the ability to impart it with any degree of cogency.

And here’s something else that concerns me:

Why am I writing a soap-box rant in the comment section of a blog?

Lie and sit both have the letter I in them. Remember “it is something I do to myself (I!)”

Alternatively, lay and set do not.

Is there a gender issue at play here? - it appears as though Joan and Peggy are generally incorrect where Pete and Don are generally correct in their usage.
Or is this education? - Pete studied literature, didn’t he? thought he had literary aspirations. Although Don may not have attended college.

Or perhaps the actors are mispronouncing their lines and are not corrected.

Finally! Somebody has made this clear to me! I have a pretty good command of the English language (ironically I’m a foreigner) but the lie/lay correct use has been evasive to me! Thanks for the laborious clip! I lied down laughing my a.. off!

I must point out you have the longest, most complicated captchas on your blog. Today’s words are: “counsel35 kavirondo” … I think!

I saw Mad Men a couple of times. The characters seem to lie to each other and try to get laid. No wonder they mess up the other meanings of those words.

One has to learn English before coming to ‘mericuh: after arriving here, one UNlearns English.

Seems like the folks on Mad Men never get “lay” right. There’s always practice, practice, practice!

The reason they talk this way is probably because thats how actual humans talk. Mark Twain taught writers that in order to obtain realism in writing we must understand that people do not speak in perfect grammar.

Also, I can think of no faster way to a break-up than grammar Nazi-ism.

I’ve never seen this show, but now I think it’s all about people going to lie down.

I am going to make a very educated guess and say: those actors are saying those lines very, very, very faithfully. The writer is on set and if they veer at all, he gets twitchy. Almost a guarantee that they’re saying the lines properly.

I think we could give Cosgrove the benefit of the doubt. “You” could be laying the “someone” down on barbed wire, instead of “someone” laying down.

I lean toward the latter because Don employment requires a good command of English and show everything seems fine to show that women with less education.

I have a pretty good knowledge of English (ironically, I am a foreigner), but a lie lay the proper use of evasive to me! Thanks for the clips work!

The excessive use of “lay”, i believe, is because everyone has sex on the brain. :)

I thought I was the only one who noticed they always get “lay” wrong!! It’s so distracting; it’s been driving me nuts… Thanks so much for pointing this out.

I briefly scanned some of the responses and, even though it’s not really the subject of the blog, I didn’t notice anyone complaining that the characters also are saying the word “thuh” in front of vowel words which makes ME nuts. Someone goes to “thee” office; they do NOT go to “thuh” office! Back in the day, secretaries went to school to be “experts” in grammar, etc. People of that generation were taught to say “thee” in front of words beginning with a vowel unless it was only one or two exceptions to the “rule.”