The Proper Use of "Lay" and Lie"

by Tina Blue
January 25, 2001

     This article is in response to a reader's request to clear up the confusion over the words lie and lay.

The main difference between the two words is that lay is a transitive verb, while lie is an intransitive verb.

Oh, stop it. Get back here and sit down--it's not that hard.

A transitive verb is one that takes a direct object. In other words, there is something that the action of the verb is being done to:

~Please lay the book on the table.

The reason a verb that can take a direct object is called transitive is that the action of the verb moves--it reaches across (trans) from the actor to the thing acted on. It is transferred action.

     The verb lie is an intransitive verb, so it cannot take a direct object--you cannot "lie" something or "lie" something down.

The only reason these verbs present a problem for anyone is that the past tense of the verb "lie" is identical in appearance to the present tense of the verb "lay." Every verb has three principal parts. Those are the forms of the verb for the infinitive, the simple past tense, and the past participle. You can find the principal parts of a verb in any decent dictionary. Here are the principal parts for the two verbs lie and lay:

Verb Infinitive Past Tense Past Participle
lie    lie        lay         lain
lay   lay       laid        laid 

Obviously there will be some confusion when it is correct to say, "I lay in bed all day," to describe what you did yesterday or last week, but incorrect to say, "I will lay here until the headache goes away, " or "Why don't you lay here a while?

Other things can also create problems with these two verbs.

One English professor that I used to go out with drove me nuts with his habit of waiting for other people to make grammatical errors so he could pounce on them to prove his own superiority. (No, I don't see him anymore. He was too annoying.) He was so eager to find errors that he found ones that weren't even there. He was especially eager to catch me making a mistake, since I am supposed to be such an expert on grammar and usage.

One day I was describing an unaccustomed headache that had prevented me from getting any work done the previous day. "It was so bad," I said, "that I lay down at ten in the morning and didn't get up again until four in the afternoon."

And the crowing began. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "I've caught you in the worst sort of error! You said you laid down!"

In my always considerate way I responded, "Jack, you insufferable pedant, pronounce 'lay' and 'down' together and see what it sounds like!"

From that point on, whenever I had to say those two words together in his presence, I would pointedly say, "I lay one, two, three down. . . ."

  So here's the drill:

~You need to lie down today, yesterday you lay down, in the past you have lain down.

    ~Today, you lay the book on the table. Yesterday, you laid the book on the table. In the past, you have laid the book on the table.

I hope I have laid this all out clearly enough to allow the proper uses of these two words to lie in the back of your mind, where they will be available to you when you need them.
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