I often have to think about this one before I write it. Does a person lay on the settee or do they lie on it? The answer is, you lie on it. Richard Lamb in his book The Queen’s English, says “I object when told to lay on the chiropractor’s couch. Lay what?”.
Before I continue, none of this relates to the word lie when meaning ‘tell a fib’, this post is purely about the meaning of ‘setting something down’ (lay) or the act of ‘reclining/being horizontal’ (lie).
Richard Lamb explains the following:
- Lay is transitive
- Lie is intransitive
Note: a transitive verb means that it is taking a direct object that is receiving the action, where as an intransitive verb means that no object is receiving the action.
Remember the following when trying to work out the difference: The word ‘lay’ in point 1 below, requires a direct object ‘the table’, where as ‘lie’ in point 2 has no object receiving the action.
- you lay the floor tiles
- you lie on the floor
We’ve established that the present tense for reclining is lie and the present tense for setting something down is lay. The problem that people (including me) have is that the past tense of lie is lay and the past tense of lay is laid (ahhhh, I hear you say). So, an example for the past tense for both of these words would be:
- She lay on the bed to rest
- The hen laid an egg
The past participle for lie is lain (I don’t recall using that word before) and the past participle for lay is laid (the same as the past tense).
- He has lain in bed for days now
- The hen has laid five eggs in total
A useful chart
Quick and Dirty Tips in their blog post ‘Lay Versus Lie’ have created a simple chart to help remember all of this. They suggest printing it out and putting it on the wall somewhere so that you never have to look it up again. Here’s something similar below for ease of reference:
Where the present tense is lie (to lie in bed), the following applies:
- Past tense – lay
- Past participle – lain
Where the present tense is lay (to lay the table), the following applies:
- Past tense – laid
- Past participle – laid
A bit of fun…
Before reading the examples in the full post on The Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips website (if you haven’t already), see if you can think of any songs with the words ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ in the lyrics and work out if they are grammatically correct . You might even be able to think of some others that they haven’t mentioned. Let me know how you get on.