I received a question in response to last week’s post asking when I was “going to have the courage to tackle” the lay/lie situation. Well, I have talked about it before, but bring it on . . . and here we go . . .
To lie and to lay are present tense verb forms. Let’s forget about the definition of lie that means not telling the truth. We are talking about the reclining kind here.
Grammatically speaking, lie is an intransitive verb, meaning it takes no direct object after it. A direct object is a noun (person, place, thing, or idea) or pronoun (takes the place of a noun, e.g., him, her, me, it, them) that receives the action of the verb. Lay, on the other hand is transitive and does take a direct object.
What does this mean in “regular” terms? You must lay something or someone down. Now, most people don’t use lie and lay at all for present tense because it sounds odd; instead they use a variation of the present tense (progressive present tense, using the present participle form). Here are some examples of using lay and lie and of using the more common progressive tense (-ing).
- I lie on my hammock. (present tense; lie is correct because there is no noun or pronoun directly after lie)
- I lay my book on the hammock. (present tense; lay is correct because you are laying something: book)
- I am lying on my hammock while I talk on the phone. (More common present tense using -ing)
- I am laying my book on the hammock while I get my lunch in the house. (More common present tense)
Things can also lie, not just people:
- A pile of rocks is lying on the side of the road.
- They are laying a pile of rocks on the side of the road. (Laying a pile: has a direct object)
- The dog is lying in the sun.
- The dog is laying his bone in the doghouse. (Laying his bone: has a direct object)
Now, that is easy enough. So let’s go to the past tense. What did I do maybe yesterday? The past tense of lie is lay. Yup. Confusing. The past tense of lay is laid. Not so confusing.
- Yesterday, I lay in my hammock all day. (Past tense of lie)
- Yesterday, I laid tile in my bathroom (Past tense of lay because there is a direct object: tile)
Now, let’s go to the past participle. That is the form we use with have, had or will have in front of it. Actually, many people don’t use these tenses at all, especially in speech, where things are often more casual. However, here we go. The past participle of lie is lain, even thought many people have never heard of it. I am not sure I have ever used it. And the past participle of lay is laid, which is a lot easier to remember.
- I have lain on this hammock for three hours.
- She has lain in the sun too long!
- She will have lain in the sun for three hours by the time we need to leave for dinner.
- I have never laid tile before.
Okay. I am going to give you a trick you can use. Subsitute the word “place” for your lay or lie. If place works, you use lay or its variations: is laying, was laying, have been laying, had been laying, laid, have laid, had laid, etc. If place doesn’t work, it is the lie verb you need.
I lie down.
I am lying down. (present participle: lying)
Yesterday I lay down.
Every day this week I have lain down.
I had just lain down when the doorbell rang.
Got it? But wait, there is more. And this “more” is never written about for some reason. It is a rule I never thought about before because is doesn’t usually come up — but it does with lie.
What about the past tenses that use -ing (past progressive)? Was I laying down yesterday or was I lying down yesterday? It is simple past tense (although progressive using the -ing) so should it be was laying? But obviously that isn’t right because was laying belongs to lay. Argh!!!!! Well, if you think about it, we always use the present participle for those tenses: I was running, not I was ranning; I was swimming, not I was swamming. And I was lying down, not I was laying down.
Back to the trick I gave you above: I was placing down yesterday. The trick doesn’t work. So with the verb lie, in the tenses that use -ing, it is always still lie.
- I am lying down.
- I was lying down.
- I have been lying down.
- I had been lying down.
- I will have been lying down.
- I am laying my books down.
- I was laying my books down.
- I have been laying my books down.
- I had been laying my books down.
- I will have been laying my books down.
So that is apparently why most people never use or need the past tense of lie (lay) or the past participle of lie (lain): we usually speak in the past using an -ing tense.
Whew! That wasn’t easy. Kudos to my favorite reference book, The Gregg Reference Manual, for the trick about substituting the word “place.”
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