Grammar Tips: Lie or lay?

by Sheila J Tofflemire on Sunday, December 6, 2009, 5:57 pm

in Grammar Tips

The proper use of these verbs creates quite a conundrum for most of us. I often have to look them up just to remind myself of the proper usage.

First, let’s define them:

  • Lie¹ – to tell an untruth
  • Lie² – to recline; to rest in a horizontal or recumbent position
  • Lay – to put or place something

For the purposes of this grammar tip, we can ignore the first definition for lie. We’re only concerned with the second definition for lie, because its usage is often confused with lay. The reason: The past tense of lie is lay.

I know what you’re thinking – Yikes! Well, let’s see if we can clear up this muddled mess. To start with, we need to understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs:

  • Transitive – requires a direct object to complete the meaning; the action transfers to the direct object.
  • Intransitive – requires no direct object to make sense; the verb does not transfer its action to an object.

Okay, knowing that, and referring back to the definitions, how would we categorize lie and lay?

Answer:

  • Lie is intransitive. I lie in bed every morning until the sun rises. There is no direct object following lie.
  • Lay is transitive. I always lay my coat over the back of my chair. The action is being transferred to the direct object – in this case: my coat.

And note that both the above examples are in the present tense. Here’s where it starts to become a puzzle.

  • He laid his bicycle on the pavement.
  • The dog lay in his bed for most of yesterday.

Perhaps a chart would help at this point:

lie-lay_chart

Time to test your skills…

Quiz:

Decide between the appropriate tenses for lie or lay in the following sentences.

  1. The dog is lying/laying on the couch.
  2. We lay/laid the attendance list on your desk earlier today.
  3. Don’t just lie/lay there, do something!
  4. She had lain/laid awake every night this week.
  5. Are you going to lay/lie around all day?
  6. Nobody can say what lies/lays ahead.
  7. That is the goose that lay/laid the golden egg.
  8. He will lay/lie his head on the pillow shortly.
  9. My uncle lays/lies paving stones for a living.
  10. I would be lying/laying if I told you I don’t love you.

Answers: click here

For further reading:

Grammar Girl
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation blog

But whatever you do, don’t use Eric Clapton as your guide to good grammar:

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