"set the table" site:.uk 29,900 google results and "lay the table" site:.uk 139,000 results, I think you're right. Strangely for all of google "lay the table" 2,870,000 results is close to "set the table" 2,420,000 results. I do not think I have ever heard "lay the table" in Texas.
I had heard it among some of my older relatives in America but I am talking people born in the 1890s. This is one of those that would really raise eyebrows for younger Americans who would not have a clue about it. It is difficult to handle some of these common phrases which many times we are not even aware differ. Duo seems to be designed by Americans and favors some Latin American Spanish derrivative. But the users seem quite international. But this one should be relatively easy since lay is a possible definition of poner. As long as it doesnt come to expressions that really cause problems like I am going to knock her up tomorrow it should work OK. In case you aren't aware that sentence has a very different meaning in colloquial American English.
I am English and although we could use either set or lay the table it is more normal to use lay. I frequently find duolingo using English which I presume is American but not excepting the way it would be said in England. I have also reported it. It is quite annoying. I live in Spain and I also find that some words are different and even more confusing the grammar is different and it does not except the Spanish version.
"Lay the table" sounds like someone's having sex with a table. Though now that I think about it "Lay pipe" could actually mean lay down piping instead of sex, and laying down piping could be said as 'setting up' piping, so 'lay the table' is sort of a roundabout way of saying 'set up' the table. Or set the table. Sometimes the UK gets it right. "lay the table" is not an example of that. I'm with you on spelling it theatre though. I refuse to spell it theater. TheaTER. Ugh.
Duolingo accepts both US and British English as being correct, though it does seem to default towards the US version. It also teaches the Latin American version of Spanish rather than the version spoken in Spain. "Place the table" is not correct if you are referring to putting the cutlery out. It could be used if you were moving the whole table and putting it somewhere, but then that would not be an accurate translation of "poner la mesa".
I have never heard of the expression "lay the table" except maybe when folding a table to "lay the table down". I live in California for most of my life and we all use "Set...". At least now I know what to say when I am in England. I am learning more than Spanish here. Cheers.
May not be as clear as you think! :) I've sort of stayed out of this one because, in Newfoundland-Labrador, which is part of Canada - though when my parents were born, it was still a country, pre-Confederation 1949 - there is a bit of a twist on this set/lay business. (I will also say that usage within Newfoundland will also vary quite a bit!)
In our household, we "set" the table if we were using it immediately. Now, you ask, when wouldn't you use it immediately? Well, if you were had early shift workers in your home - as we did in our primarily fishing community where tides made many decisions - you might be having "breakfast" at 2:00am. It was quite common to "lay" the table for that meal before going to bed. Everything, except the dairy and hot food, was "laid out," ready for that mad rush to get people feed and lunch boxes packed. I remember quite often drying dishes from the evening meal and "laying" them right back on the table, putting the pot for eggs and the pan for bacon on the back burner (bread was usually rising/or cooling on the front of the stove), and even laying the freshly washed lunchboxes and thermoses at the far end of the counter, out of the general stream of traffic, for whoever would be packing them in the "morning."
And there is the difference between "setting a table" and "laying a table" in my little corner of the world.
In many places, that distinction has since fallen a bit by the wayside. Then again, so has the fishing. However, it would not be the least uncommon to hear "set the table" or "lay the table" in any particular household.
One really has to say that either poder means both can and may or that the may which is asking for permission (as opposed to the may reflecting possibility) has no translation. Certainly when you would say may you use poder. In Spanish permission is one of the elements that have to be present to be able to say you can (like ability, time, money, etc). So I don't think using a word which makes a distinction that the Spanish word does not is a good translation. Beyond all that, despite my own tendency to grammatic conservatism, this distinction has remained a favorite of parents and teachers, but really is probably on its way out.