Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 30: Lie Detector

Today we tackle one of the most confusing bits of word choice in common language; lay versus lie. Usage for these words is difficult for lots of reasons: They sound alike. They mean similar things. And both lay and lie are used as nouns, verbs and idioms in dozens of different ways. Think of the popular child's bedtime prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
It's no wonder these two words are so frequently mixed up.

Let's first focus on the verb forms of these two words that are commonly used when things or people come to rest. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, lay is a transitive verb that means "put down". Transitive verbs require objects—put another way, transitive verbs are actions taken on something else. So while a person can't lay on a table, she can lay a book on a table.

Lie is an intransitive verb that means "to be in or to take up a horizontal position on a supporting surface." Intransitive verbs are actions taken without objects—they are actions taken on oneself. So a cat can't lie a mouse on the floor, but it can lie in the sunshine.

A simple way to decide whether to use lay or lie is to change the word in question to "place" or "put." If the replacement word works, then lay is the right word to choose. If it doesn't, then lie is correct. For example:
Put that blanket on the couch.
That sounds right. So the appropriate word choice would be:
Lay that blanket on the couch.
On the other hand:
Julie wasn't feeling well and needed to place down for a moment.
That doesn't sound right at all. So, the correct word usage is:
Julie wasn't feeling well and needed to lie down for a moment.
Another reason these two words may be confused is because of how the verbs are conjugated. Most people are familiar with how to conjugate the verb lay:
I will lay the pencil on the desk.
I laid the pencil on the desk.
And so on. However, it can be confusing because lay is also the past tense of the verb lie. The verb lie is conjugated as:
I want to lie on the beach and read a book.
Yesterday, I lay on the beach and read a book.
I had lain on the beach all morning.
I was lying on the beach when the sun went down.
So if the "place/put" rule of thumb has found that lie is the right word to use, then constructing the different tenses is a simple vocabulary choice.

A word like "lain" might sound old fashioned, but it is correct. And although there are specific idioms that probably aren't worth correcting—golfers "play the ball where it lays"—lay and lie are pretty well defined when it comes to formal, written English and don't allow for much wiggle room.

Sources: The American Heritage Book of English Usage and the Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Music from this Episode: "Would I Lie To You?" by The Eurythmics; "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel; "Lay Lady Lay" by Bob Dylan.

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