You may want to lie down to read this…
All languages have their confusing words…words that sound the same, look the same, or have the same meaning. Especially confusing are words that have similar forms (for example, in different verb tenses) but are not used in exactly the same way (the present and past tense of “read,” with two different pronunciations, comes to mind). In my opinion, the irregular verbs “lay” and “lie” rank at the top of the list in terms of confusing forms and usage.
These words are a particular pet peeve of mine…because I can never keep them straight! I have probably looked these two words up more often while teaching and editing than any other words in the English language. I hope that by writing out the rules here that we will sort them out, together, once and for all!
The quick trick is to notice if there is a direct object in the sentence. If there is, then use the appropriate form of lay: to place in a horizontal position.
- She laid her baby in the crib at night.
If there isn’t a direct object then use the appropriate form of lie: to recline or assume a horizontal position.
- I’m lying down because I have a headache.
If you find that you can’t keep these words straight when conjugating them, you’re not alone! The thing that is most confusing about these two verbs is that the present tense of lay is the past tense of lie!
We can hardly blame Lance Armstrong for mixing these two up in his recent tweet: “Back in Austin and just layin’ around…” which caused a stir among language lovers. He wrote “laying” when he should have written “lying” (no direct object). This caused some controversy, not only because of the grammar, but also because he tweeted a photo of himself surrounded by his Tour de France jerseys even though his victories have been annulled. (Just imagine the responses if he had used the correct word (“lying”) in that tweet. Check out ESL Library’s NEW Discussion Starters lesson on Steroids.)
Now let’s look at these verbs in more detail by examining their different meanings and forms.
I won’t bore you with the more than fourteen meanings of “lay” and the more than eight meanings of “lie” (according to Merriam‑Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). Let’s just stick to the meanings which are similar, and thus the source of all the confusion.
a) to put or set down
- He laid his books on his desk after school.
b) to place for rest or sleep
- She laid her baby in the crib.
a) to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position
- I was lying in bed for hours last night before I finally fell asleep.
b) to assume a horizontal position, often used with down
- He will lie down for a quick nap.
Bill Bryson, in Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, notes that it’s a common mistake for people to say, “Go upstairs and lay down.” It should be “lie down” because there is no direct object. The Chicago Manual of Style mentions that the children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” is a good mnemonic device because it shows the use of a direct object after “lay.”
LAY – LAID – LAID vs. LIE – LAY – LAIN
We can see that the form “lay” is used both as the present of lay and the past of lie. Memorization and repetition will definitely help you keep them straight. Also, the Copyeditor’s Handbook has a great sentence for keeping the past tense forms in mind, which you might want to pass along to your students: “He laid the book on the table before he lay down.”
Now, let’s examine these verb forms in more detail:
LAY – LAID – LAID
a) Present: Lay
- He lays his keys in the container by the door when he gets home every day.
b) Present Participle: Laying
- She can’t come to the phone right now because she is laying her baby in the crib.
c) Past: Laid
- I laid my passport on the counter at the airport.
d) Past Participle: Laid
- The vet has laid the dog on the examination table.
LIE – LAY – LAIN
a) Present: Lie
- He lies down for an hour every day after work.
b) Present Participle: Lying
- She is lying back in her favorite chair.
c) Past: Lay
- After watching two movies, the kids finally lay down to go to sleep last night.
d) Past Participle: Lain
- You have lain in bed for hours! Get up!
Lie – To Make An Untrue Statement
Another common use of the verb “lie” is as an intransitive verb with the meaning “to make an untrue statement.” This “lie” also does not take a direct object, and the verb forms are lie – lied – lied because it is a regular verb. (E.g., She lied about staying home last night. Her friend told me she was at a party.) Because of the different forms and meaning, I hope this won’t confuse your students too much. It’s up to you whether you want to mention it within a “lay/lie” lesson, or save it for another day. Interestingly, Lance Armstrong’s grammatically incorrect tweet may be a useful way to remember all of these rules!
Do you need to lie down after all that info? ;)
- Bryson, Bill. Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, 2008, p. 200–201.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, 2010, p. 287. Einsohn, Amy.
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 2011, p. 347.
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, 2008.