Helpful Grammatical Hints: Lay vs. Lie


Okay y’all. The grammar police have returned with a vengeance and here we are for another lesson on Sarah’s Pet Peeves.

This one is particularly frustrating for me, mostly because we use these words so often in our daily conversations, and because there is hardly anybody in the world who uses them correctly.

Let’s start with the basics: “lay” and “lie” are different words, and I’m not just talking about the “lie” that refers to not telling the truth. They are both words that can describe a noun (that’s a person, place, thing, or idea) at rest.

First, let’s discuss the word “lay,” as that seems to be the more widely misused of the two words we’re addressing. I am referring to the abomination that occurs when someone announces that he is going to “go lay down.” This, my friends, is incorrect.

The verb “to lay” is a verb that requires a direct object. A direct object is the thing to which the verb is done. To clarify, “to lay” is like the word “to buy” – you cannot simply say “I’m going to buy.” You must buy something – the direct object. The direct object of the sentence “I’m going to buy a shovel” is the shovel. Thus, the verb “lay” should be used in contexts when a person lays something down to rest (“I’m going to lay this book down on the table”) or when a hen lays an egg. The only time it is appropriate to use this word in the context of a person resting is in a situation like we encounter in the child’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep.” This is appropriate because the child is laying something – himself – down to rest.

The word “lie,” by contrast, is hardly ever misused; instead, people choose to not acknowledge its existence at all and to use the word “lay” in its place. Please do not ignore this word; it is extremely useful. “I’m going to go lie down” is a grammatically perfect statement. Use it as often as you’d like.

The tricky part about these words is using them in the past tense. In the past tense, the word “lie” becomes “lay.” In the past perfect, it becomes “lain.”

The book lies untouched on the counter.
She is lying down right now. [present perfect/progressive]
Tomorrow I will lie down.
Yesterday I lay down. [past preterite]
I have lain down already. [past perfect]

The past tense of the word “lay,” (remember, for this we need a direct object) is “laid” – this does not change in the past perfect.

Now I lay the baby down for a nap.
I am laying my clothes out for tomorrow. [present perfect/progressive]
I will lay the utensils out on the counter.
I laid it right here! [past preterite]
I have laid down a payment already.

Now, I bet you are really confused. Let’s recap to clarify.

lie, lay, lain: something (you, an animal, an object, etc) is at rest
lay, laid, laid: you or someone else puts something to rest, or puts it down

I know this is a tough one, but I hope that – if nothing else – I frightened you enough to at least think twice every time you hear, or want to say, these words.

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