Phatic communion, and lay vs. lie

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts on language matters. You’re the one for me, phatic offers an overview of phatic communion, a useful term from anthropology that refers to speech intended to establish or maintain social relations (as opposed to simply exchanging information):

A familiar example (and subset) is small talk, where people exchange greetings, good wishes, congratulations, and trivialities about the weather, recent sporting events, the state of the world, and so on.

Everyday greetings, such as How’s it going? and How are you doing?, are more about presenting a friendly attitude to someone than extracting answers from them, just as the replies – Fine, thanks, etc. – are usually stereotyped and automatic rather than necessarily being accurate indications of a person’s state. Though disliked by some people, small talk is a valuable social signalling system, as is phatic communion more generally.

The article also notes the origin of the term phatic and describes manifestations of the phenomenon in Ireland.


Laying down the lie of the land addresses a knotty issue in English usage: the difference – and overlap – between lay and lie:

In standard English lay is transitive; that is, it takes a direct object (certain idioms excepted). You don’t just lay – you lay something. But this is a relatively recent rule, and it is very often ignored, especially in speech and informal use, where people frequently talk about laying down, laying on the floor, and so on. . . .

For many people lay meaning ‘lie’ isn’t wrong at all – it’s what comes naturally. But its use in edited prose invites criticism from those who learned the rule and want to see it observed as a mark of proper English. Like many contentious usage issues, it boils down to context and personal preference.

I look briefly at the history of this pair, noting that intransitive lay is over seven centuries old and only relatively recently became a usage to be avoided in careful prose.

Comments are welcome in either location, and older posts are available in the archive.

7 Responses to Phatic communion, and lay vs. lie

  1. David Morris says:

    In your Macmillan blog post, you write: ‘no one talks about a hen lying eggs’.
    There is a riddle: ‘Q – What’s a hindu? A – It lies iggs’.
    (This is considered funny in Australia if said in relation to New Zillanders, who all talk funny.)

  2. alexmccrae1546 says:

    @Stan… your use of the phrase “a knotty issue in English usage” re/ lay vs. lie, in the intro to the second segment of your post, elicited a little chuckle on my part, as my mind descended almost immediately into the gutter, and I mentally replaced your “knotty” w/ its homophonic twin, “naughty”, still keeping the debate between the ‘proper’ use of lay and lie foremost in mind.

    Not to be too gauche here, but the naughty expression “getting laid” needs no explication. (This slangy term likely dates back to Chaucer’s day, but I’m just speculating here. His bawdy “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” comes to mind.)

    Now the term “getting waylaid”, although another naughty ‘circumstance’ of a different sort, often of a violent nature, means having been accosted or intercepted in an unexpected, sudden manner.

    Ah! Ha! … the best laid plans of mice and men!

  3. Stan says:

    David: Aha! I sit corrected, and gently amused.

    Alex: Both words have so many meanings that the potential for puns and wordplay, bawdy or otherwise, is considerable.

  4. Both pieces of this post are most welcomed :D I am one of those taking issue with all-too-common everyday greetings, which perpetuate a lackluster day-in-day-out experience devoid of fresh and romantic human moments. Furthermore, even though understanding ‘appositives,’ ‘metalanguage,’ and being able to craft decent definitions of my own, I will probably never secure understanding of the proper use of lay, lain, lied, etc. in any context. And I’m alright with that ;]

  5. shewrite63 says:

    Why don’t you have a [Like] button for your blog posts? I like what you write about – but don’t feel confident enough to post an intelligent comment, lest my poor grammar expose my inadequacies.

    Consider this a like anyway :o}


  6. Stan says:

    TFP: It’s true the automatic nature of routine exchanges can reduce the likelihood of ‘fresh and romantic human moments’, as you pleasingly put it. But we’re not always inspired or inclined to such novelty, and small talk clichés provide something familiar to fall back on, which I think is socially very valuable.

    shewrite63: Thank you! I don’t tend to judge comments for their grammatical or intellectual content. But civility and courtesy are always well received. I think I removed the ‘Like’ button to reduce clutter, so I appreciate your verbal substitute. :-)

  7. bob says:

    @David Morris Nice. It also works with relation to South Africans as perceived by Brits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: