Happy National Grammar Day!

Lay vs. Lie: Oh, the Confusion! Oh, the Humanity!

This Friday, March 4, is National Grammar Day. I couldn’t possibly pass it up without writing a few words for this blog, which is ostensibly about grammar.

Garner’s Modern American Usage claims that “one of the most widely-known of all usage errors” is using lay for lie. This confusion is nearly universal, and whenever I discover a writer or speaker who uses lay and lie correctly, I nearly faint from the sheer wonder of it. It is hardly overstated to say that the correct use of lay and lie is the shibboleth of the educated writer or speaker. (Now there’s a biblical allusion for you biblical allusionists.)

First, let’s have some definitions. Again, Garner says, “lie (= to recline, be situated) is intransitive—it can’t take a direct object <he lies on his bed>. But lay (= to put down, arrange) is always transitive—it needs a direct object <please lay the book on my desk>.”

Let me partially inflect these two verbs and then give several examples (I’ll save the present and past participles for another time):

            Verb               Present          Past               

            1. lay (v.t.)      lay                   laid    

            2. lie (v.i.)      lie                    lay

Got it? Still with me? (Just nod your head.) Here are some examples of when to use lay (#1).

Lay (present tense): “Honey, please lay the baby (direct object) down for his nap.”

Lay (past tense): “She laid the baby (direct object) in his crib for his nap.”

Lay (present tense): “Let us lay our heads (direct object) on our pillows and get some sleep.”

Lay (past tense): “We laid our heads (direct object) on our pillows.”

Here’s a trick to help you remember: When you mean “put,” use “lay.” When you are doing something to something, use “lay.” You never use lay to describe lying down (unless it’s past tense—see the chart). Here are some examples of when to use lie (#2):

Lie (present tense): “Sheila went to the beach to lie on the sand.”

Lie (past tense): “When Sheila went to the beach last weekend, she lay on the sand all day.” (Note, the past tense of lie is not laid. You use laid only when talking about putting something somewhere—“The Ladies Guild laid out a feast for all the revelers to enjoy.”)

Lie (present tense): “It’s time for me to lie down and take my nap.”

Lie (past tense): “I lay (not laid) in bed for two hours this afternoon.”

Lie (present tense): “Come here, Spot, and lie down. Lie down, Spot!”

Lie (past tense): “Spot is such a good dog. She lay on her bed all through dinner.”

Lie (present tense): “The bandit decided to lie low until the heat was off.”

Lie (past tense): “The bandit lay low for two years and then came out of hiding.”

There. That’s enough about lay and lie for one sitting. It’s time for me to lay my books down and lie on the floor to do my stretches.

Need some great resources for improving your grammar? Check out My Bookshelf and Writing Helps, both here on my website.

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