One of the words most misused in the English language is “lay.” And its counterpart, “lie” is simply one of the most ignored! I will explain why I think this is, how the grammar rule works, and how you can remember the rule and apply it to your writing.. First, the key element to understanding the difference between “lay” and “lie” is to understand the difference between intransitive and transitive verbs.
All sentences consist of subjects and verbs. In the sentence “The boy skates,” “boy” is the subject and “skates” is the verb. Some sentences also have objects. In the following sentence, notice there is an object in addition to the subject “boy” and verb “love”: “The boy loves pizza.” The object is “pizza.” It is called the object of the verb because it comes after the verb and is the noun that tells WHAT the boy loves. In my first example sentence, the verb “skates” is an intransitive verb because it does not use an object. We cannot say, for example, “The boy skates school.” You can say “The boy skates TO school” and in that case, “school” becomes an object, but NOT an object of the VERB. It is the object of the preposition “TO.” Thus, we have two types of objects in English: objects of verbs and objects of prepositions. (Prepositions, for those who may not know, are connecting words such as from, to, on, under, above, of, etc. and there exist at least fifty or more of them in English.) Often a verb can have either a transitive or an intransitive meaning. Take these two sentences: “The man runs to school”/ “The man runs the school.” In the first sentence, “runs” is intransitive because school is not the object of the verb “runs.” It is the object of preposition “to.” But in the second sentence, “runs” has the meaning of “manages” ( he man manages the school.) The dictionary denotes transitive meanings with v.t. and intransitive meanings with v.i. in case a person is unsure how to use a verb.
So what does all this have to do with “lie” and “lay?” Well, it is simply this: “Lay” is transitive and requires an object, while “lie” is intransitive and does not require an object. “Lie” has several intransitive meanings, and here are a few of the most common ones: 1. To put oneself in a reclining position, as in this example, “I will lie down and rest.” 2. To rest on a more or less horizontal position (said usually of inanimate objects) as in this example, “His books are lying on the table.” 3. To be situated, as in “Mexico lies to the south of California.” Now here is where it gets tricky. There is another intransitive verb “lie” in the dictionary which is listed separately from the “lie” I have just discussed because it is the REGULAR verb “lie,” and it means “to tell a lie.” By regular verb, I mean that its past tense is formed simply by adding –ed.; for example, “He lied to me.” The “lie” which typically means “be in a horizontal position” is an IRREGULAR verb. This is what distinguishes it from the “lie” which means to tell an untruth. And here is where things get very confusing: The PAST tense of “lie” is the same word with which it is so often confused, the transitive verb “lay!” If last night I went to bed after midnight, and I want to indicate I was in a reclining position on my bed, I would actually say this: “Last night I lay in my bed after midnight.” The two irregular participle forms of “lie” are “lying” and “lain.” So I also might say that I was LYING in my bed last night at midnight and that I had LAIN there all night before I awoke in the morning!
I think that Americans are simply uncomfortable using the same word that can mean “to tell a lie” when talking about being in a reclining position! I have even had people argue with me that “I lie in bed” or “I am lying in bed” cannot possibly be correct. “Lying” is also the –ing participle form of the “lie” which means to tell an untruth. Consequently, “lying in bed” could have two meanings. It could mean “being in a reclining position on one’s bed” or “telling a lie while in bed!” Therefore, you will sometimes hear even educated people say this: “I was laying in bed last night.” However, this is incorrect in formal English and I personally do not like to see it used incorrectly in a poem which is not meant to be “colloquial.”
Now let’s get back to “lay.” This is the verb which is transitive and the one which many English speakers enjoy overusing because they are either uncomfortable with or unknowledgeable about the usage of its counterpart “lie.” The simplest meaning of “lay” is “to place or put” and it’s often used in conjunction with the propositions “down,” “in” or “on” coming after it. For example, “Lay the book down over there,” “I laid my book on the table,” and “I am laying the baby in the crib right now.” As you can see, the other forms of “lay” are “laid” and “laying.” (not so confusing as the forms of “lie!”) Here is the easiest way to know if you are using “lay” correctly: Simply replace it with the word “put.” If it can be replaced with the word “put,” you are using it correctly! So let’s test it in this sentence: I will lay the baby down.” Does this sentence mean “I will put the baby down?” Yes, and so the word “lay” has been used correctly. Now let’s test this sentence, “The baby is laying in his crib.” Does this sentence mean “The baby is putting in his crib?” No, it does not! This is a common misuse of the verb “lay.” We should say, “The baby is lying in his crib.” The hardest one of all for people to recall, in my opinion, is using the appropriate form of “lie” in the past tense. Remember to say, “The baby lay in his crib all night” and NOT “The baby laid in his crib all night.”
Finally, I want to mention two other confusing word pairs in English. They are often discussed in ESL grammar books in conjunction with “lay/lie.” I mention these two other confusing word pairs to demonstrate a way I help my international students to remember better the rules of “lay/lie.” These two other pairs are “sit/set” and “rise/raise.” Notice that “sit” and “rise” are the intransitive verbs of these verb pairs respectively: “He sits down,” “The smoke rises.” We don’t say, “He sets down” or “The smoke raises” because “set” and “raise” require objects, in the same way that “lay” requires an object as well. Here is something to help you remember the similarity of “lie,” “rise,” and “sit” as being intransitive verbs. All three of them use an “i” in the middle of them! And that “i” can be a reminder to you of the word “intransitive, which also begins with an “i.” Now you have only to remember what the term “intransitive” means versus “transitive” and to be sure that you are using lie/lay correctly in your writing!