In many of my grammar posts, I often discuss common but misused words like it’s versus its or I.e versus E.g.. So, for this week’s installment, I’ll be covering the differences between lie and lay, probably the most misconstrued of all.
The most barebones difference between lie and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires a direct object. Going back to third grade, direct objects follow transitive verbs or action words. They are the “what?” and “who?” of the “subject+verb” equation. As in:
Jenny(subject) + played(verb)+WHAT?” Answer, soccer (direct object).
So, lay needs something or someone to do the laying– for instance, “Lay your book on the table.” Of course, as a command, the subject is the invisible ‘you’ and the sentence can be diagrammed as follows:
(You, subject) + Lay(action verb) + your book (direct object) +on the table (prepositional phrase, but more on this later)
Lie, on the other hand, does not require a direct object. So, if you want to lie down on the couch, you’re free to do so. Please note: “on the couch” is NOT a direct object (yet another prepositional phrase, more on that later) as the couch is not doing the lying down, you are the one doing it. Okay, get up now.
Sounds easy, right?
Here’s an easy way to remember:
Fans of older music will be shocked to know that both Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are wrong: “Lay, lady, lay” should be “Lie, lady, lie“, and “Lay down, Sally” should be “Lie down, Sally”. Yet, Kelly Rowland, in all her pop-princess glory, is totally right with “Lay it on me“. Well, that’s music for you.
The present participles of these verbs aren’t so bad, either. As a reminder, participles are part of the perfect tenses– they are the latter half of verb phrases with am, has/has been, and have/have been in them.
The present tense of lie is lying— as in, “I’m lying down on the couch right now; it’s pretty awesome”. Or, “He’s been lying on the couch for a while, he must be lazy.”
The present tense of lay is laying, which is pretty straight forward. One example is: “She has been laying her coat on my chair every day since she’s moved in.” Or, for special occasions, you can say: “The Golden Goose has been laying golden eggs again!” This works because the golden eggs serve as the direct object in this sentence; it’s a different definition, but the same rule applies.
Okay, here comes the really tricky part.
The past tense of lay is laid. The past participle of lay is also laid. Too easy.
But, the past tense of lie is lay. Not so easy. And, a little ridiculous, if you ask me. To make it a little more difficult, the past participle of lie is lain. Ugh.
(To refresh your memory: the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses–I.e, the verb phrases that have has, have, and had in them.)
Laws of language aside, it is what it is. Your job though is to remember it. I don’t have any funny or stupid-yet-oddly-helpful ways to remember it, so just memorize it. Sorry, guys.
Here’s how to conjugate both lie and lay in the past tense, with examples::
- Present tense: Lie
I lie in bed at night, thinking about dinosaurs.
- Past tense: Lay
Yesterday, I lay there thinking about them, too.
- Past Participle: Lain
And, the night before last, I also had lain in bed thinking about them. I may have a problem.
- Present Tense: Lay
I lay my coat on this chair, usually.
- Past Tense: Laid
Earlier, I laid my coat on this chair But, it’s not there.
- Past Participle: Laid
Oh, I forgot I had laid my coat on the bed instead. Fail.
Easy? It can be when working with present tense, but it can get confusing when using the past tense. Unfortunately, the only way to learn how to do this properly is by memorizing these rules. But, it gets easier with practice, don’t worry. Soon enough, you’ll be
laying and lying all over the place.