One of the most widely committed grammar errors is using lay for lie. This confusion is nearly universal. Writers and speakers everywhere get it wrong. All the time. Popular songs through the years haven’t helped, either. Think of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed,” and Eric Clapton’s “Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms.” And let’s not forget Simon and Garfunkel’s huge hit “The Boxer,” which laments of “running scared, laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go.” Unfortunately, the lays in these examples are all wrong. Now we have an entire generation or two of adults who think that “lay” or “laid” are the only correct forms of the verb, and that “lie” refers to the claims of presidential candidates and Olympic swimmers.
Let’s see if we can sort out the confusion.
First, let’s have some definitions. The intransitive verb lie means to recline or be situated. As an intransitive, lie cannot take a direct object. But lay, meaning to put down or arrange, is always transitive—it must have a direct object.
I’ll give examples below, but first, here’s a simple chart:
Verb Present Past Present Participle
- lay (vt) lay laid laying
- lie (vi) lie lay lying
Here are some examples of when to use the transitive verb lay (#1 above):
- Present: “Honey, please lay the baby (direct object) in the crib for her nap.”
- Present: “Let us lay our heads (direct object) on our pillows and get some sleep.”
- Present participle: “Bob is out back laying bricks for the new barbecue.”
- Past: “We laid our heads (direct object) on our pillows.”
- Past: “She laid the baby (direct object) in his crib for his nap.”
Here’s a trick to help us remember: When we mean “put,” we use lay. Or when we are doing something to something, we use lay. We never use lay to describe lying down (unless it’s past tense—see the chart).
Here are some examples of when to use the intransitive verb lie (#2 above):
- Present: “Sheila went to the beach to lie (not lay) on the sand.”
- Present: “It’s time for me to lie down (not lay down) and take my nap.” [Although it would be fine to say, “It’s time for me to lay my head on my pillow and take a nap.”]
- Present: “Come here, Spot, and lie down (not lay down). Lie down, Spot!”
- Present: “The bandit decided to lie low (not lay low) until the heat was off.”
- Present participle: “Spot is lying on her bed while we eat dinner.”
- Present participle: “The children are lying (not laying) on their mats for their afternoon nap.”
- Past: “When Sheila went to the beach last weekend, she lay on the sand all day.” (Note, the past tense of lie is not laid. We use laid only when speaking of putting something somewhere—“The Ladies Guild laid out a feast for all the revelers to enjoy.”)
- Past: “I lay (not laid) in bed for two hours during my nap.”
- Past: “Spot is such a good dog. She lay (not laid) on her bed all through dinner.”
- Past: “The bandit lay low (not laid low) for two years and then came out of hiding.”
I hope this has been helpful. Now it’s time to lay down my pen and then lie down for my afternoon nap.
 An intransitive verb “takes a subject but not a direct object because it is capable of making a complete statement without the aid of an object” (Bryan A. Garner, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, 485).
 A transitive verb takes a direct object (e.g., “We saw the car”). (Garner, 487.)
© 2016 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.