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A little trick for LIE and LAY

Every once in a while Frequently, I come across misuses of the verb "to lie" and its past tense form "lay." When it happens, I think, I really should share my little trick for differentiating between the two. Then I don't because I'm afraid of sounding preachy. Or I feel too lazy. Yesterday, I came across two different instances on two different blogs, both written by people who have books out (don't worry, the guilty parties are not on my flist), and decided now is the time to share. I'm going to try to avoid using grammar terminology where possible because I know such terms make most people's eyes glaze over. If you want to get more technical, you can browse Guide to Grammar & Writing.

Growing up, "lie" was only used when someone (never moi, of course) was telling a whooper. "Go lay down" was used whenever the adults wanted us rugrats out of their hair. Now that I am a mother in need of peace, "lay down!" springs to mind all too readily. Since the Great and Gruesome Massacre of English Grammar is not a legacy I want to pass on to the Sprout, I make an effort not to lapse into colloquial speech, which is also why you'll never hear me saying, "We was going to the store," another common gem in my ex-neck of the woods. 

So, when I want to know if I should choose "lie" or "lay", I simply substitute the verb with the proper conjugation of "sit."  If sit/sits/sitting works, I know I need lie/lies/lying; if the sentence needs "sat" then I know I need "lay." Note that there is no "satting" because there is NO "laying."  

Not when you need the verb "to lie;" check out this entry on Merriam-Webster, first usage, if you need the definition.

This is obviously not the right way to proceed if using the verb "to lay" (lay, laying, laid). That verb needs an object (something being laid down); in that case, you can see if "set" or "setting" makes sense. Sat vs set can be confusing for some, and in that case, use "put/putting" instead.

Some examples:
  • "Go _______ down." You wouldn't say "go sat down;" however, "go sit down" makes perfect sense. You need "lie": Go lie down.
  • "I was ________ down when the phone rang." The "was" says that we need the participle form (-ing).  Laying or lying? Well, one wouldn't say, "I was satting;" so "sitting" is the obvious choice, hence: I was lying down when the phone rang. 
  • "She _______ sleeping, looking so peaceful that I could not bear to wake her to share such sad news."  A deliberately trickier example. Without the context at the end of the sentence, both the present "lie" and the past "lay" could work. The "could not," though, lets us know we need the past tense, "sat" rather than "sit," so:  "She lay sleeping..."

How about the perfect form, the "have(has) lain/laid," when the present/past sit/sat can't help you?

Here's the easy rule: LAID does NOT belong with LIE, ever. Period.

If you know the definition of "to lie" and know what you are trying to get your sentence to say, you can safely ignore the little voice telling you to insert "laid." You only use laid when talking about putting something--an object--down (the whole "set" verses "sit/sat" thing from above).
  • "Get off your arse.* You have _______ there for hours and you need to get to work on your projects!" Is anything being set down? No, it is referring to you, in a prone position. You need to get up because you've lain there for hours.
  • "Where have I ______ my glasses?" No one speaks like this outside of books, at least no one of my acquaintance; most people prefer "put," but who knows, you might need to use it someday.  Like in that book you are writing.  So, "where have I sit my glasses?" or "where have I set(put) my glasses?"  The second one. Giving us: Where have I laid my glasses?
I think that's enough for now.** I can see your eyes glazing from here.

Another reason I haven't gotten around to making this post before is because I'm afraid of leaving something out, but there you have the basics about how I deal with lie vs lay. I hope it helps! For more tips, here is Grammar Girl's take on it.

Quick reference table:

personpresentpastperfect formparticiple form
firstI lie
in bed
I lay
in bed
I have lain
in bed
I am lying
in bed
thirdshe lies
in bed
she lay
in bed
she has lain
in bed
firstI lay
it down
I laid
it down
I have laid
it down
I am laying
it down
thirdshe lays
it down
she laid
it down
she has laid
it down
she is laying
it down
(table taken from Guide to Grammar & Writing)

* I coudn't resist, frigg.

** Says the Sprout who is more than ready to lie on the cushions in the Children's Section of the library while I lay out a wealth of books for her to peruse. Now where have I laid my keys?


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 15th, 2012 09:02 am (UTC)
lol... I am PROUD of you for using arse!

Sep. 15th, 2012 10:09 am (UTC)
That's a neat trick, thanks for sharing!
Sep. 15th, 2012 01:52 pm (UTC)
OMG it's all the things in the interstices that I love here, too, like that you bring up the fact that sit/set can be difficult--something I didn't really know until I started learning** about regional variations in pronunciation. That particular one is known as the "pin/pen" variation. In some places, the sharp-pointy thing and the writing implement are pronounced very similarly, and in other places they're pronounced very differently.

I wish I could go live in other parts of the United States for a long time, so I could absorb the lilt and pattern of other ways of speaking and put it into my writing *naturally*.

No one speaks like this outside of books, at least no one of my acquaintance; most people prefer "put," but who knows, you might need to use it someday. Like in that book you are writing.


in my ex-neck of the woods

Remind me again where that was? Was it Oklahoma?

**I mean, I always knew about regional variations, but when I started concentrating on them and trying to notice patterns and things.

Edited at 2012-09-15 01:53 pm (UTC)
Sep. 15th, 2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
Huh... this has never been a problem for me. I guess I grew up in a grammatically correct home :P

Sep. 18th, 2012 01:46 am (UTC)
Ooh, neat. Thanks!
Sep. 23rd, 2012 08:30 pm (UTC)
Great trick! This will save me hours of headache.

Although, I have to be honest: no one outside of books uses lain anymore... :-D
Sep. 23rd, 2012 09:09 pm (UTC)
Happy late birthday, Peej!
Sep. 23rd, 2012 11:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Did you enjoy your festive drink? :-)
Sep. 24th, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
I did! Thank you!!!!! :D (I almost didn't get the message because it went into my spam folder, so it took me a while to see it).
Sep. 24th, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
Damn pesky spam filters. ;-)
Sep. 24th, 2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
Very useful! Of course, in Yorkshire we don't use 'sit/set', so there's no confusion.

Yorkshire dialect insists 'I/you/she/we/they were sat...' wherever and whenever you apply it.

So remember it's:
'I were sat at t'table this morning.'
'He's sat at t'winnder (aka "window") nah (aka "now").'
'They'll be sat in t'car tomorrer.'

Confused? You ought to hear broad Yorkshire kids trying to 'talk posh'.
Oct. 8th, 2012 09:11 pm (UTC)
Oy, a love affair with "sat." I've never heard the like. :P
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


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