Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Brief Review of LIE and LAY

It seems like the distinction between the two verbs "lie" and "lay" is disappearing in common usage. I have seen and heard so many examples lately where the writer or speaker uses the wrong one, and these are people who should know better. It has even been suggested {gasp} that someday soon the distinction may be done away with entirely in common usage. However, the distinction is still observed by enough potential employers (or clients) that it would be well to try to get the usage right before using one or the other incorrectly in a professional setting (or in a job interview!).

I believe we've covered these words before, but I thought it might be time for a quick review.

Very simply "to lay" means "to put" or "to place", and "to lie" means "to repose".

"Lay" is a transitive verb, meaning that it is an action word, expressing a doable action, and requiring at least one object; it will always be followed by a noun or pronoun. Its principal forms are lay, laid, have laid, and laying. For example: I lay my keys on the counter as soon as I get home. I know I laid my keys on the counter when I got home today. I have laid my keys on the counter since I learned to drive. Laying my keys in the same place every time helps me keep up with them. If you are saying that something has been put or placed somewhere, then use a form of "lay". In these examples, "keys" is the direct object. What did we lay? We laid "keys".

"Lie" is an intransitive verb, a word that has no object. The action stays with the subject, as it were. (The confusion between "lie" and "lay" usually comes about because the past tense of "lie" is spelled the same way as the present tense of "lay".) The principal forms of "lie" are lie, lay, have lain, and lying. For example: Today I lie in bed until noon. Yesterday I lay in bed until noon. In fact, I have lain in bed until noon all this week. Actually I am still lying in bed right now! There is no object for which the action was performed, so there is no direct object. The subject "I" performs the action, and the action goes nowhere; it stays with the subject.

So really, knowing the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs is probably the key to knowing whether to use "lie" or "lay" in a sentence. If you are going to be describing an action that is doable, with a noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb, then use one of the forms of the transitive verb "lay". If the action you are describing is being done by the subject and "stays" with the subject, then you would use one of the forms of the intransitive verb "lie".

The etymology of the two words is also different. The word "lay" comes from an Old English word that means "to place on the ground" or "to put down". (This is also the origin of the verb "lay", meaning "to produce an egg.") The word "lie" comes from a different Old English word that means "to rest horizontally." (Yet another Old English word is the origin of the verb "lie", meaning to tell a falsehood.)

If anyone has a specific question about the usage of "lie" and "lay", please feel free to ask in the comment section.