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The Correct Use Of Lay/Lie

byR. Richard©

The words Lay and Lie are verbs that are often used incorrectly. One of the reasons is that there are two Lay verbs. One is the base form of the verb Lay, and the other is the past tense of the verb Lie.

Lay is a transitive verb meaning 'to put or place.' Someone lays something down.

(Note: Lay is also a widely recognized slang verb or noun involved with sexual intercourse. Examples are 'John wants to lay Mary.' or 'Linda is a good lay.' The lay that is involved with sexual intercourse is not under discussion here.)

Lie is an intransitive verb meaning 'to rest on a more or less horizontal surface.' Someone lies down on a more or less horizontal surface.

(Note: Lie is also both another verb and a noun. The verb Lie can mean to tell other than the truth. The noun Lie is a statement that is other than the truth. The Lie, either verb or noun, that involves other than the truth is not under discussion here.)

Both Lay and Lie are irregular verbs. Of course it adds to the confusion that Lay is not only a present tense of the verb Lay, but also the past tense of the verb Lie.

Present
Lay: 'He lay the woman on the bed.' 'They lay the woman on the bed.'
Lie: 'He watched the woman lie on the bed.' 'They watched the woman lie on the bed.'

Present Participle (continuing action)
Is/Are Laying: 'He is laying the woman on the bed.' 'They are laying the woman on the bed.'
Is Lying: 'He is watching the woman who is lying on the bed.' 'They are watching the women who are lying on the bed.'

Past
Laid (past tense of Lay): 'He laid the woman on the bed.' 'They laid the woman on the bed.'
Lay (past tense of Lie): 'The woman lay on the bed all last night.' 'The women lay on the bed all last night.'

Past Participle
Had/have laid: 'He had laid the woman on the bed.' 'They have laid the woman on the bed.'
Had/have lain: 'The woman had lain on the bed for some time.' 'The women have lain on the bed for some time.'

Perfect (just completed action)
The perfect tense of Lay is has/have Laid. He has laid the carpet. They have laid the carpet.
The perfect tense of Lie is has/have Lain. He has lain down to sleep. They have lain down to sleep.

Which is correct?
'A person was laid on the table.'
'A person was lain on the table.'

Answer: 'A person was laid on the table' is correct. Laid is the past tense of Lay the transitive verb meaning 'to put or place.' Only the person himself/herself would have lain on the table.

Which is correct?
'The woman is laying on the bed.'
'The woman is lying on the bed.'

Answer: 'The woman is lying on the bed' is correct. Lying is the present participle of Lie the intransitive verb meaning 'to rest on a more or less horizontal surface.' Only someone else could have been laying the woman on the bed.

Which is correct?
'Lay the woman on the bed.'
'Lie the woman on the bed.'

Answer: [You] lay the woman on the bed is correct. Lay is the present tense of the transitive verb meaning 'to put or place.' Only the woman herself can lie on the bed.

Sentences such as 'He is laying on the bed.' or 'Why don't you lie it on the bed?' are wrong.

Correct forms are 'He is lying on the bed' and 'Why don't you lay it on the bed?'

Exceptions:
The verb Lay was once used with a reflexive pronoun to mean 'Lie' and survives in the familiar line from the child's prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep."

The phrasal verb 'lay for' is standard as in: They lay in wait for their enemy.
(A phrasal verb is a verb plus a preposition which creates a meaning different from the original verb.)

The nautical use of 'lay',' as in lay at anchor, though intransitive, is standard.

Bob Dylan, wrote the famous lines: ""Lay, Lady, Lay/Lay across my big brass bed," It is not too difficult to see why Dylan did not write the correct form "Lie, Lady, Lie/Lie across my big brass bed."

It's probably a good idea to keep the two verbs distinct in formal writing, since people will be looking for evidence of your education in your work. If you're submitting something for publication, the copy editor will almost certainly fix your lays and lies for you.

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