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Grammar Snags: Lay Versus Lie

Lay Versus Lie

Written at the request of one of my favorite people, I’ve decided to occasionally address common grammatical snags. “Lay versus Lie” is a biggie, so we’ll start here.

To Lay Versus To Lie

It helps to think about the infinitive (unconjugated verb) involved. Which one are you actually using?

This one is simple on the surface, and yet the conjugations of the two verbs in question can even send me scurrying to look it up at times, in certain tenses or conjugations. Most people have problems with the past tense usage, because it is honestly one of those ugly abortions of the English language. Future tenses can be worse but luckily, few issues arise with those. (Full disclosure: those edge cases tend to be the ones I need to double check, even though my instinct is usually right.)

The verb to lie has two meanings. One is “to speak an untruth;” the other is “to recline.”

The verb to lie is a Complete verb. A subject and a complete verb is an entire sentence: “I lie.” With an understood subject, it can be a sentence all by itself (such as an imperative). Poor spoken grammar makes this counter-intuitive even though it’s correct: you can’t correctly tell someone (not even your dog) to lay down. They can only lie down.

The verb to lay means “to put” or “to place.”

The verb to lay is a Transitive verb (which means it requires a direct object — that is, something to be laid). “I lay” is not a complete sentence*. The vernacular phrase “I’m going to lay down” is wrong. You are going to lie down, not lay down. People can only lay a thing somewhere.

This is where some of the confusion begins. One big take away: in the same way that you can’t exactly lay (caveat forthcoming!), you can always lie.

If you’re reclining, you are lying. If you are putting something down, you are laying (it).

What About Getting Laid?

Yeah, that’s just improper grammar. It’s a witticism, see? A play on words. Someone took you and laid you, get it? You became an object and got laid. That’s all.

So Lay Versus Lie: Which Fucking One Is It?

The bitch of it for most writers is in past tense.

The past tense of to lie is either lied (if you fibbed) or lay (if you reclined). The past participle is either lied (if you fibbed; FREX “I have lied to police”) or lain (if you reclined; FREX “I have lain on that bed many times”).

So the previous mnemonic was a bit of a fib: you can (and should) say something like “I lay there wondering” and it is perfectly legitimate, as long as you are in the past tense.

You are still, however, using the verb to lie and not the verb to lay.  “Laid” is not involved with the verb “to lie.”

Both the past and past participle tenses of “to lay” are the same: laid. (Past participles require an auxiliary verb. A “helping verb,” remember that from elementary school?) “I laid the book down.” “I had laid the book down.”

That should help, I hope. It’s basic grammar, even though it’s just not always intuitive or easily recalled, but remembering the ‘rules’ is a good way to help keep it straight, just like anything else. Be aware of the infinitive you actually are using (or ought to be using) and it will be much easier to get the right conjugation.

BONUS: And while we’re here, you can AFFECT something, and it will have an EFFECT. (Exceptions are rare enough that this doesn’t really merit an entire column.)

*(Clarification, Feb 20, 2017 : In present tense, it is not. In past tense, it is.)

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