Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Lie vs. Lay

Do you lie down or lay down? Or is it the same thing?

Lie like a rug or lay an egg

Actually, lie and lay are two distinct verbs. Here’s the difference: lying is something you do; laying is something you do to something. You can lie in bed all day, lie on the beach, or lie low—or you can lay a book on the desk, lay tiles, or lay an egg.

Verbs Can Make You Tense

So why all the confusion? Because of the sheer ass-backwardness of the English language, the past tense of lie is lay. Now you lie in the arms of your beloved; yesterday you lay in her arms. The past tense of the verb lay, on the other hand, is laid: now you lay down your burdens, but yesterday you laid them down. The past participle of lie is lain: I had just lain down for a nap when I noticed the smell. The past participle of lay is the same as the past tense—laid: I discovered my cat had laid a dead mouse on the pillow.

Got it? If not, you’re not alone. But these examples should help.

Lie (Something You Do)

  • Now: This is where we lie in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when she comes around the corner.
  • Then: This was where we lay in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when she came around the corner.
  • With have: We have lain in wait for her many times, but so far she has evaded our righteous rain of cheese.

Lay (Something You Do to Something)

  • Now: The vampire lays his unconscious victim on the divan and arranges her hair so it spills fetchingly across the cushions.
  • Then: The vampire laid his unconscious victim on the divan and arranged her hair so it spilled fetchingly across the cushions.
  • With have: This vampire has laid many a local lass on his divan. (I mean he put them down—get your minds out of the gutter!)

Lie Low vs. Lay Low

It’s incorrect (though common) to say you’re going to “lay low.” You can lie low, but “lay low” is something you did in the past.

  • I’m going to lie low until the Apocalypse is over.
  • I lay low for most of that summer, until everyone had forgotten my embarrassing faux pas at the barbecue.

You may come across a reference to someone being “laid low.” In that case, the person has been laid low by something (an illness, say). Since the illness is doing the action to someone, the correct verb is lay.

  • She was laid low by a combination of alcohol and roller derby. (Alcohol and roller derby laid her low.)

This is the construction that gave us the confusing “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I is laying me down, so to speak. You could more clearly—though maybe less poetically—say “Now I lie down to sleep.”

Lie Like a Rug or Lay an Egg

So how do you keep it straight? First, memorize (or bookmark) this handy chart:

present: lie lay
past: lay laid
past participle: lain laid

Second, ask yourself, "Is the subject of my sentence behaving more like a rug or a hen?" and choose accordingly.

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