Sunday 12 November 2017

Lie vs. Lay

Here’s the difference between lie and lay: Lying is a thing you do. Laying is a thing you do to something.

  • The carpet has to lie flat before it’ll fly you anywhere.
  • You have to lay the carpet flat before it’ll fly you anywhere.

Le tapis volant by Bilibin

To put it another way, lay is transitive and lie is intransitive. Transitive verbs need a direct object. (See Transitive and Intransitive Birds for more on this.) In the example above, the object of lay is carpet.

Present Tense

One way to remember the difference between lie and lay is to think of the idioms “lie like a rug” and “lay an egg.” You can’t say “lay like a rug” because then the pun (lying on the floor/combusting one’s pants) doesn’t work. “Lay an egg,” on the other hand, demonstrates how the verb lay needs a direct object, in this case egg.

In the antiquated structure of “now I lay me down to sleep,” the object of lay is me. The modern version would read “now I lie down to sleep.” If you’re not laying down a thing (or a person), then what you’re doing is lying.

  • My only goal is to lie around in a fluffy robe eating chocolates.
  • Lay Whiskers on his cat bed and step away slowly.
  • Anatoli has to have a lie-down after every séance.
  • There is a special hell for people who lay open books face down.

So far so simple, right? Just wait.

Past Tense

Because the English language laughs at logic, the past tense of lie is lay.

  • The carpet lay still and refused to fly anywhere.
  • After waking, Gregor lay in bed trying to figure out what he’d turned into overnight.
  • All that month we lay low at the ranch while the posse searched for us.

The past tense of lay is laid.

  • When the act was over, the ventriloquist tenderly laid her dummy in its box.
  • The night before the big match, the luchador laid out his favourite mask, cape, and tights.

Vintage lucha libre poster

Past Participle

A past participle is a verb form you use with have or had (e.g., drunk, given, seen). The past participle of lie is lain.

  • For ten years Teodora had lain in her coffin, waiting for a victim.
  • You’ve lain around feeling sorry for yourself long enough.

The past participle of lay is laid (yes, it’s the same as the simple past).

  • Whiskers has generously laid a dead mouse on your pillow.
  • It seemed the prince had not yet laid those salacious rumours to rest.

To recap:

lie/lay/lain, lay/laid/laid

  • The Oompa-Loompas are lying in wait.
  • Yesterday the Oompa-Loompas lay in wait.
  • The Oompa-Loompas have lain in wait since breakfast.

  • Lay your cards on the table.
  • Yesterday you laid your cards on the table.
  • You had already laid your cards on the table when I drew my derringer.

Lie Low or Lay Low?

The correct expression for keeping a low profile is “lie low”—although “lay low” is so commonly used instead, it’s probably only a matter of time before it becomes accepted. However, to lay low actually means to knock out or overcome. For example, you’ll often read of someone being “laid low” by illness. In such cases, the object of lay is the person being laid low.

  • Lupe was laid low after Sunday’s roller derby match.
  • Roller derby injuries can lay Lupe low.
  • Hien and Renée had to lie low after the diamond heist.

Movie still from Les Vampires, 1916

In casual spoken English, lay and lie are frequently interchangeable, but formal writing guides still maintain the distinction, so it’s worth memorizing the different verb forms. That said, it’s rare to see lain in the wild, let alone hear it, and I doubt most readers will notice if you use laid by mistake.

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