I’m not going to lie, y’all. This rule is tough. But I’m here to lay down the facts and give you some easy tricks to nail this rule once and for all. So lie down, kick up your feet and watch this week’s grammar shape-up episode on lay versus lie.
LET’S MASTER THE PRESENT TENSE FIRST
Lay is a verb that commonly means “to put or set (something) down.”
Lie is a verb that commonly means “to be in or to assume a horizontal position.”
The important distinction is that “lay” requires a direct object and “lie” does not. So, you lie down on the mat (no direct object), but you lay the mat down on the floor (the mat is the direct object). Use “lay” when an object is being placed, and use “lie” when something or someone is reclining on its own or already in a reclined position.
“My dog could lie there all day.” There is no direct object.
“Maybe if I lay his favorite toy over here he will move.” The direct object is a toy.
“I love to lie on the beach and read all day.” There is no direct object.
“Let’s lay the cooler between us.” The direct object is the cooler.
“I need to go lie down; I’m tired.” There is no direct object.
“Will you lay a cold compress on my head?” The direct object is a cold compress.
TRICKS TO REMEMBER
TRICK 1: One trick I tell people, simply, is humans lie (as in tell falsehoods). So when we are talking about ourselves or others reclining on the bed, sofa, etc., use the same word. NOTE: Animals and objects can lie somewhere or be lying somewhere, too, if someone is not actively laying them down. If that doesn’t click, here is another one.
TRICK 2: Say the word out loud. The a sound in lay sounds like the one in place, as in to place an object. The i sound in lie sounds like the one in recline, as in to recline on a sofa.
pLAce — to place something down — use lay.
recLIne — to recline — use lie.
Don’t use lay to talk about being in a flat position. Lay must have an object. Here are some phrases I hear a lot.
INCORRECT: “Okay, everyone, lay down on your mats and we’ll begin class.”
CORRECT: “Okay, everyone, lie down on your mats and we’ll begin class.”
INCORRECT: “Are you just going to lay in bed all day!?”
CORRECT: “Are you just going to lie in bed all day!?”
INCORRECT: “Want to lay out by the pool today?”
CORRECT: “Want to lie out by the pool today?”
OTHER TENSES GET TRICKY
Stay with me now. The past tense of lie is lay, but not because there is any relation between the two verbs! So when you say, “He just lay down for a nap,” you’re actually using the verb lie, not lay, despite the way it sounds. Here are examples of the two verbs in their other tenses.
Past tense of lay: I laid out the dinner plates already.
Past tense of lie: I lay in bed all day yesterday because I felt sick.
Present participle of lay: I am laying the baby down for a nap.
Present participle of lie: The baby lying in her crib looks so serene.
Past participle of lay: They have laid all the foundation for the new house.
Past participle of lie: I have lain in this hammock before.
FUN EXAMPLES FROM POPULAR MUSIC
Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” contains a correct — but rare — usage of lay in the line “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.” This works because lay takes the object me.
How about this line in Snow Patrol’s hit tune “Chasing Cars”? “If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?” Arg! Since the song is in the present, the two lays should be lies, but the use of lie is correct! Think: “If I lie here, would you lie with me?”
In “Lay, Lady, Lay” by Bob Dylan, he wants her to “lay across his brass bed.” All of those lays should be lies!
In “Get It Right,” Miley Cyrus incorrectly says she’s “been laying in this bed all day.” Sorry, Miley, but you didn’t “Get It Right” grammar-wise! For some humor, read famous musician Sufjan Stevens’s letter to Miley about this error.
I hope you enjoyed these examples, and I will see you next week!
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