Angela’s ABCs – Lie and Lay

Words often confused: lie and lay

The verbs to lie and to lay have very different meanings:

  • To lie means to rest, to recline or to be in a horizontal position.
  • To lay means to put or to place.

There is an essential difference between these two verbs:

To lie is an intransitive verb: it describes an action undertaken by the subject, but it never has a direct object. It does not express the kind of action that can be done to anything:

  • I lie here every day.
  • I lay here yesterday.
  • I will lie here tomorrow.
  • I am lying here now.
  • I have lain here every day for years.

To lay is a transitive verb: it needs a direct object because it describes the kind of action that is done to something.  Something or someone has to be receiving the action of the verb to lay. In these sentences, the direct object is hat.

  • I lay my hat on the table every night.
  • I laid my hat on the table last night.
  • I will lay my hat on the table tomorrow night.
  • I am laying my hat on the table now.
  • I have laid my hat on the table every night for years.

The principle parts of each verb are:

Verb                      past simple                         past participle                   present participle

to lie                      lay                                          lain                                         lying

to lay                     laid                                         laid                                         laying

Problem areas

  • One reason people have trouble remembering the difference is that the past tense form of to lie is lay which is spelled exactly like the present tense form of the verb to lay.
  • The two past participles also cause confusion. Many people are not familiar with the past participle of the verb to lie, which is lain: ‘She had lain on her bed for a hundred years, until the prince woke her up with a kiss.’ Because lain is an unfamiliar verb form and because it sounds very similar to the past participle of to lay, which is laid, people often use laid as the past participle for both verbs.
  • English has two other verbs that may confuse the issue further:
    • To lie, meaning to tell a falsehood, is generally intransitive:
      I often lie about my age.
      Yesterday I lied about my age.
      I have lied about my age.
      I am lying about my age.
    • To lay, meaning to produce an egg, may be transitive or intransitive:
      The hens lay eggs. (transitive) The hens lay well. (intransitive)
      The hen laid three eggs. (transitive)
      The hen has laid an egg every day this week. (transitive)
      The hens are laying well this year. (intransitive)

Conclusion

  • When Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed,’ he was muddling the two verbs and he should have sung ‘Lie, lady, lie, lie across my big brass bed.’
  • Similarly, when Eric Clapton sang ‘Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms,’ he was forgetting that to lay takes a direct object and he should have sung ‘Lie down, Sally.’

 

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