To Lay or To Lie—That Is the Question

If I were asked to vote on the verb that causes the most confusion and is invariably conjugated incorrectly more often than correctly, lie would win hands down. If you Google “to lie” or “lay/lie” you can find enough websites discussing these seemingly unobtrusive, simple words to fill volumes. How can a three-letter word cause so much grief? I think there are two reasons. 1) the word lay has two completely different uses and 2) we use these verbs incorrectly in speech as well. I am guilty of often saying something like, “The dog’s laying on the couch.” I often hear people using lay instead of lie. But what’s even more “off” to me are the “creative” conjugations some people come up with like:

  • I lied on the couch for six hours (wow, your voice must have gone hoarse talking for so long!).
  • I layed down when I got tired.
  • The chicken layed an egg.

Really, there are only six words you need to remember. If you recite them a bunch of times, you might just be able to recall them when you need them. And two of them repeat, so you really only need to know four words. How hard is that? Here they are:

  • Lie, lay, lain
  • Lay, laid, laid

If you’re not sure when to use lie, think of recline (Hear the long i sound in both words). Lie (not the verb discussing whether you are telling the truth or not) is something you do to yourself—you lie down. I lie down today. I lay down yesterday. I had lain down every day for a week.

Lay is something you do to something else (in grammar-talk this verb takes a direct object. Lie never does). When you think of lay, think of place (Hear the long a sound in both words). I lay the book on the table. I laid the book on the table. I had laid the book on the table every day this week.

So just repeat after me: “Lie, lay, lain. Lay, laid, laid . . .”

I think I need to go lie down now.

5 Responses to “To Lay or To Lie—That Is the Question”

  1. Anna Labno May 3, 2013 at 6:33 am #

    Thank you. I always forget the correct usage for these two verbs. Finally, I will register them in my head and review them for a week, so I’ll never stumble over them.

  2. Layla May 3, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    I always have trouble with this :p but this is a great trick to keep in mind, thanks!

  3. Curtis May 3, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    Uh-oh . . . Bob Dylan needs to rewrite his song “Lay Lady Lay” . . . although I don’t think “Lie Lady Lie” would be quite as good for sales . . .

    • cslakin May 3, 2013 at 10:13 am #

      Yep, or he could add “yourself” to make it correct. Like “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

  4. Glenn May 18, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Replace “lay” with “put”. If it doesn’t work, use “lie”.

    GF

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