Mixing up “lay” and “lie”
A reader writes:
I have problems with lying and laying. Is there an easy way to make sure I am using the right one?
The distinction is easy enough, but this particular usage is on the endangered list and may not survive into the next generation of English speakers.
Knowing the difference between lying and laying requires the speaker to recognize the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
Verbs that describe actions are either transitive or intransitive.
A transitive verb takes a direct object.
The Latin prefix trans- means “across.” The action of the transitive verb carries across to a direct object. This direct object receives the action of the verb.
Ex. The man drives a truck.
The verb is drive. To determine whether the verb has a direct object, one asks “drives what?” In this example, there is an answer: drives a truck. The verb drives in this sentence is transitive. Something, “truck,” receives the action.
Some verbs are always transitive. Some are always intransitive. Many, like drive, may be either transitive or intransitive.
Ex. Every Sunday the family drives in the countryside.
If we apply the question “drives what?” to this sentence, we do not get an answer. Nothing in the sentence receives the action. There is no direct object so in this sentence drive is an intransitive verb. The action remains with the verb. (The phrase in the countryside tells where the family drives.)
The common confusion between the verbs lie and lay is understandable because the form lay exists in the conjugations of both verbs:
to lie – intransitive verb meaning “to recline; to rest horizontally”
Present: Today I lie on the bed.
Past: Yesterday I lay on the bed.
Present Perfect: I have lain on the bed all day.
Present Continuous: I am lying on the bed.
to lay – transitive verb meaning “to place; to put”
Present: Today I lay the book on the table.
Past: Yesterday I laid the book on the table.
Present Perfect: I have laid the book on the table.
Present Continuous: I am laying the book on the table.
Here are a few more illustrations of correct usage:
Lie down, Fido!
The accident victim lay in the street.
The spectators lay back in their seats to look at the sky.
Today it’s your turn to lay the table. I laid the table yesterday.
English has two other verbs that may confuse the issue further:
to lie – “to tell a falsehood” – generally intransitive:
Present: Today I lie about my age.
Past: Yesterday I lied about my age.
Present Perfect: I have lied about my age.
Present Continuous: I am lying about my age.
to lay – “to produce an egg” – may be transitive or intransitive
Present – The hens lay eggs. (transitive) The hens lay well. (intransitive)
Past – The hen laid three eggs. (transitive)
Present Perfect: The hen has laid an egg every day this week. (transitive)
Present Continuous: The hens are laying well this year. (intransitive)
Both forms of lay derive from an Old English verb meaning “to place on the ground” or “put down.” The two lie verbs come from two different Old English verbs, one meaning “to speak falsely,” and the other meaning “to rest horizontally.”
This is not our first post on lay/lie and probably won’t be the last. See this one from July 2007.