Lay vs. Lie: Grammar Errors and Quiz
Lay and Lie Grammar
Is it lay down or lie down? Is it had lain or had laid? Are you laying low or lying low? The two words lay and lie are difficult to use correctly even in the best of circumstances.
The present tense of the words lay and lie seemingly overlap and insert themselves into our written and verbal communication like uninvited wild dogs, teasing our language skills and flubbing even the most conscientious grammar freak.
What’s one to do? Force the offending words out of the English language? Ban these litigious words and leave them for little black fleas to feast on? Unfortunately, that’s not possible. Fleas themselves aren’t the type to lie anywhere for too long, let alone long enough for us to ponder the fate of lay and lie.
We must learn to work with them. It’s not a lie that these words force us to mentally floss our brains, never allowing us to lie around, waiting for a miracle to happen. But, there are ways to make the process of choosing which word to use – lay or lie – easier and moving us up the social language ladder (if not the flea social hierarchy).
Lay - It's Transitive
Let’s talk about the word lay for a moment. It’s what is known as a transitive verb.
Transitive verbs you ask? Using lay, transitive verbs and verb tense all in one breath sound like a grammatical disaster waiting to happen.
Let me shed some light on these grammatical mysteries: it’s not that bad. I’ll walk you through some examples and then you can check yourself with a fun quiz at the end!
Transitive verbs are action words that do something to someone or something else. Look at the following example:
The dog lays his bone in the hole.
The word bone comes after the verb lays. Bone is an object, both literally and grammatically. Literally, it’s a piece of murky white remains that dogs seem to love with disturbing voracity. Bone is also a direct object.
But, let’s say we have a particularly forgetful dog. This dog loves chewing on bones and every day his owner gives him a new bone. He chews for awhile and then wants to “save” it for later. He goes out and buries the bone. Over the course of his short life of 5 years, he has dug one hole per day. That equates to 1,826 bones and holes in the yard! He’s forgotten just about every one of them, too.
Other than the fact that our dog – we’ll call him Dugger – is a little obsessive-compulsive with his bone-burying habit, you have to give him credit. He has laid a lot of bones in a lot of holes, spending large amounts of time digging and burying his corporeal treasures. What a holey yard!
Dugger the dog has laid many bones to rest. Today he will lay another bone in a hole, and will continue to lay many more bones in his yard if he keeps up his incongruous habits.
Lie - It's Intransitive
Now, the word lie is interesting, too. We’re not talking about telling fibs, though I wonder if Dugger the dog has been lying to himself about having a mental disorder: Compulsive Bury-the-Bone Syndrome is often difficult to recognize and even more difficult to treat.
In any case, all of Dugger’s digging has come at a great cost. He’s always tired. After digging over 1800 holes during the course of his life, he often lies around for hours, doing nothing. In fact, Dugger’s owner has often remarked that he has a very mellow dog. It’s no wonder!
Dugger lies around for hours after digging and burying his bones.
In the above statement, no object comes after the word lie. The word around is a preposition – the sort of word that helps describe direction or location among other things.
Dugger will lie in his bed for 6 hours!
Poor Dugger! He gets so tired that his naps last a very long time. Those holes must be very large and deep.
Yesterday, his nap lasted 8 hours and he lay in one position for so long, he left an imprint of his body on his doggie bed.
Lay is the past tense of lie when you’re referring to someone or something reclining.
In fact, over the last few years, he has lain in his bed so much, he’s actually flatter on one side of his body than the other.
In the example above, you see how to use lay with the past participle. Basically, a “helping” verb goes in front of lain. Most commonly, it will be has or had.
Apparently, you really should let sleeping dogs lie: they will look more interesting as the years go by.
This last example uses a common “saying” to illustrate that the word lie in correct usage.
Dugger's Journey Continues....
Dugger recently changed his routine. Since his bed has an imprint of his body and the stuffing is flattened, he has taken to sleeping on his owner’s bed.
There’s something he doesn’t understand, though. His owner sometimes waves handfuls of fur in his face that came from the bedcover, saying things like, “THERE IS FUR LYING ALL OVER! AHH! I COULD MAKE A SWEATER!!”
Since his owner acts so excited, Dugger reasons his master must like all that fur. He’ll make a point of licking himself even more. Perhaps more fur will equal more excitement. All that excitement and attention definitely make his day.
After seeing all of Dugger’s examples, we can summarize the words lay and lie. (Never mind the fact that some dogs spend too much time lying around in the state of apparent oblivion.)
If you want to recline you lie down in the present, lay down in the past, and had lain down using the past participle.
If you want to place an object or otherwise do something to it you lay it down in the present, you laid it down in the past, and had laid it down using the past participle.
In Summary: Lie vs. Lay
To recline (lie)
To place (lay)
Test Your Knowledge
Do you think you understand when to use lay and lie? Take the quiz to find out.
This is one of those things you’ll either have to remember or use the table above to jar your memory. Don’t be like Dugger and forget. He has one Swiss cheese memory: it’s full of holes!
I hope Dugger's antics have you remembering lay vs. lie better than before, and that you enjoyed reading.
In the video below, this is a very popular song. It's by a band called Snow Patrol and the song is "Chasing Cars" - in honor of Dugger. When he's in the mood, he will try to chase a car.
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun
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