The Straight Dope on Lay Versus Lie

“The Straight Dope” highlights common grammatical errors—so you can stop looking dopey when you do these things incorrectly. 🙂

Please note: Unless otherwise specified, these are the proper grammar and formatting rules according to Chicago style—the style in which you should be writing if you’re writing fiction—and some nonfiction.  (So don’t give me a laundry list of reasons why some other way is correct. It *might be*, in AP style or APA style or MLA formatting . . . but that’s not what I’m talking about.)

This one gives me a lot of trouble.  Even though I try to be extra careful, I still get confused about when to use Lay vs. Lie.  So I’ll do my best to be as clear as I can . . .

I’m always deferring to my friends William Strunk, Jr., E.B. White, and Bobbie Christmas for help!

Lay

Lay is a transitive verb.  That means there must be a subject (noun) performing the action (verb)—and there must be an object (another noun) being acted upon by said action.

In English, please?

OK—that means there must be something DOING the laying and something must be BEING LAID.  (Get your heads out of the gutter!)

So:

The hen lays eggs. (Hen is the subject.  It is doing the laying.)

Q: What does it lay? (The direct object answers the question WHO or WHAT.)

A: Eggs. (So, eggs is the direct object.)

That is how we know “lays” is correct here.  It is an action being performed.

Good?  Good.

This concept is still pretty easy and not really what trips me up about lay vs. lie.  However, before we get to that, let’s take a look at some verb tense variations of lay.

Present tense: The bricklayer lays bricks right now.

Past tense: The bricklayer laid bricks yesterday.

Present perfect: The bricklayer has laid bricks since he was twenty years old.

Past perfect: The bricklayer had laid bricks until he became a goat herder.

Present progressive: The bricklayer is laying bricks right now.

Past progressive: The bricklayer was laying bricks when he got the news.

None of that seems too difficult, right?  It’s not.  However, I believe the reason I—and others—have such a hard time with lay and lie lies in (pun intended) the verb tense variations of lie.

Lie

Lie is a state of being.

  • You lie on a couch.
  • Papers lie on the floor.
  • Answers lie everywhere.

However, the past tense of lie is lay—d’oh!  And that is what causes all the trouble. (Some of these examples are modified from Bobbie Christmas’s Purge Your Prose of Problems.)

Present tense: I lie in traffic for fun.

Past tense: Yesterday, I lay in bed until noon.

Present perfect: The body has lain in state since last week.

Past perfect: The body had lain out for a week before someone discovered it.

Present progressive: The body is lying in state right now.

Past progressive: The body was lying in state last week.

Here are a few more examples that might help you:

  • The cat, lying across the windowsill, slept peacefully.
  • When I got home yesterday, the cat lay across the windowsill.  She lies there all the time! When I saw her, I laid a blanket across her back.  Whenever I come home, I lay a hand on her and stroke her silky fur.
  • I couldn’t find my socks anywhere—until opened my suitcase and found them lying inside.  They had been lying there since our last trip—which means they had lain there for a year!  I laid them there when I was unpacking, and I must have forgotten about them!

Hope this helps!

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10 thoughts on “The Straight Dope on Lay Versus Lie

  1. Are you kidding? I have my cheat sheets for lie/lay/laid; who/whom; may/might; If I was/If I were — need I go on? Love our “Elements of Style” and “Webster’s English Grammar Handbook,” etc.

    Thanks again for the great examples! Those always help.

  2. Good stuff!

    As the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin says in her writing book Steering the Craft, “What’s happened is that the transitive verb about setting an object down has got tangled into the intransitive verb about being horizontal not vertical, and made a total hash of it, and is now devouring the hash.” She continues, “If you don’t flinch [when you see it incorrectly written], consider yourself lucky. There really is nothing to be done about it by now, I think, except flinch.”

    And I try to remember for my own sanity that “laid” has nothing to do with being horizontal. Unless you’re very impolite.

  3. Thanks for this post. Still, I try to avoid the whole laid/lay thing in general, because even when I see it wrong, I don’t flinch. Maybe if I reread Strunk and White, and memorize this post, I’ll get it right someday.

  4. Ugh, will I ever remember this? Thanks, Ricki, for going over this, but I fear that I’ll not remember it until doing it wrong humiliates me in some way. That’s how I remember all the tough grammar rules, as well as how to spell Mary Wollstonecraft.

    • Hee — you’ve got her rolling over in her grave, huh? I’m not sure I would have spelled that correctly without looking it up either…luckily, I don’t find myself typing her name, well, ever! 🙂

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