Should you Lie or Lay?

The decision to use lie or lay can bring my editing to an abrupt halt. Which one is it? They both sound right. Should I refer to song lyrics for the answer?

Once I learned the present-tense usage for each, I was then faced with the hurdle of transporting each into the past. I added Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips Lay versus Lie page to my favorites and consulted it often. I’m gradually weaning myself from it, but it’s been a long, uphill hike.

In case you face the same indecision, here’s a summary of when each word should be used:

Lie does not require a direct object. It’s something you do to no one but you (or something someone does to no one but him or herself). Example:  I begged, “I need to lie down and rest. I’m sure Jimmy is already lying down.” They allowed it, and as I lay there, I wondered if anyone, even a pacifist, could have lain motionless in the sand.

Lay does need a direct object. It’s something you do to something else (or something someone does to someone or something else). Example:  I said, “I’ll lay this one over there, where Jimmy is laying them.” I heaved the body over my shoulder and laid it down next to the others, silently calculating how many people we had laid to rest since Thursday.

Here’s the mix-up, including both words:  I laid down my gun. As I watched Jimmy laying the last body into the line, I vowed I would never again lie down to sleep with more regrets than those already lying in my soul. He approached me, laid his hand on my shoulder, and whispered, “Lay it on me, Sharon. Tell me how you feel. I think we’ve lain silent for too long.”

Here’s the wrap-up:

Lie is an intransitive verb, meaning no action is transferred to a direct object:  Lie, Lying, Lay, Lain (present, present participle, past, past participle)

Lay is a transitive verb, meaning the action is transferred to a direct object:  Lay, Laying, Laid, Laid (present, present participle, past, past participle)

Here’s wishing you happy grammar, and hoping that all your lies and lays are good ones.

4 responses to “Should you Lie or Lay?

  1. I love posts like this and have even considered doing a weekly essay, or some such thing.

    Lie and lay in particular have always been a little dicey for me, and to this day I still must sometimes consult my grammar books to be quite sure. Your explication was very well written and intelligible.

    Thank you for wishing me a good lay.

  2. Pingback: The Koala Neighbour

  3. Pingback: To lay or not to lay… « ConversationalWordsmith

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