Archived Story

English is not thankful for lay and lie rules

Published 10:10am Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Happy week of Thanksgiving. Today is Tuesday, and you most likely have half of your mind thinking about food and family and the other half thinking about finishing up at work. We at the Tribune are thankful for our readers, and today my column is in response to a request from a reader.

She said she likes when I write about grammar, style, punctuation and other aspects of the English language. She said she must have missed the day in school when they covered lay and lie and wanted me to go over it.

That, I can do.

First, let’s talk about participles. These are the forms of verbs we speak when we pair them up with auxiliary verbs. Some auxiliaries are is, was, has, had and have, among others. For instance: He is walking. He has walked. He had walked. He has been walking. He was walking. There are many inefficient ways to get verbs out of our English speaking mouths.

Walk is our verb. The past form is walked. The present participle is walking. The past participle is walked. Get it?

Now, there are regular and irregular verbs. Walk is a regular verb because its form in past tense is the same as its past participle.

Some irregular verbs are fall and eat: She fell. She had fallen. He ate. He has eaten. The past participle is spelled differently than the past form. Get it?

OK, what about the present participle? Most explanations of English verbs don’t concern themselves with present participle because the one rule in our English language that does not have an exception is this: All present participles have the -ing form: walking, falling, eating, laying, lying.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

Present tense for lay and lie is not that difficult to remember. Lay is an action a person does to an object. Therefore, always takes a direct object. It means to set an object down, usually gently. Lie is an action a person does to themselves and requires no object. Usually, it means to rest in a horizontal position, but it also can mean where something or someone is situated.

Let’s not forget one other version of lie, which is a noun that means a false statement, but it also is a verb that means telling false information with the intent to deceive.

So here are present-tense examples:

A. The mom lays the baby in the crib.

B. The dad lies down on the bed for a spell.

C. The city of Albert Lea lies before you.

D. Lucy Van Pelt lies to Charlie Brown a lot.

In Example A, notice how “baby” is the direct object of the verb “lays.” “In the crib” is merely a prepositional phrase. “Lays” makes no sense without “baby.” In Example B, “down” is an adverb, but it sure helps to avoid confusion with telling falsehoods. “On the bed” and “for a spell” are prepositional phrases. And not requiring an object, the sentence could be shortened to “The dad lies down.” Example C is the version of lie that means situated. The song “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” might help remember that form. Example D also does not need an object. “Lucy lies” still makes sense.

Here are more examples of lay:

He lays a calculator on the desk.

The dog lays his bone in his dish.

The forward lays the ball in the hoop.

See those objects? Calculator, his bone and ball. Lays always needs objects.

OK, enough with present tense. Let’s do past tense. That’s where it gets tricky.

For lay, the past and past participle forms are laid.

The mom laid the baby in the crib. The mom has laid the baby in the crib.

But for lie, to mean to recline or is situated, past form is — drumroll, please — lay. Yes, this is our goofy English language, folks. Everyone wants to say “laid,” but that’s wrong. And it’s an irregular verb, with the past participle of lain. And nobody anymore actually says “has lain,” — we desire to say incorrectly “has laid,” right? — but “lain” is what is correct.

Right: The dad lay down on the bed for a spell. The dad had lain down on the bed for a spell.

Wrong: The dad laid down on the bed for a spell. The dad had laid on the bed for a spell.

(Fortunately, it’s hard to hear the difference between “lay down” and “laid down” so speakers don’t get called on that one.)

And lie to mean situated is the same participle as lie meaning to recline. (I suppose you’d have to imagine Albert Lea being ruins for my examples so that it could be thought of in the past tense.) The city of Albert Lea lay before you. The city of Albert Lea has lain before you.

We almost need to say it this way: The city of Albert Lea once lay before you. The ruins have lain undisturbed.

Now it’s making sense. Kind of. But wait! What about lies to mean tell falsehoods?

It’s a regular verb. Uffda! The past tense form is lied and so is the past participle: That girl lied yesterday and has lied all her life.

The two most common lay-lie mistakes are:

The dog lays on the floor.

The man lies the bottle on the table.

The right way is:

The dog lies on the floor.

The man lay the bottle on the table.

And the present participle form is:

The dog is lying on the floor.

The man is laying the bottle on the table.

See how “the bottle” immediately follows “lay” or “laying”? It’s an object. The one thing that makes sense through it all is this: The verb lay and its forms of laying and laid need objects. The other words don’t. Remember that, and you’ll do fine with lay and lie.

If you cannot figure it out, just write around it: He set the bottle on the table. The dog sprawled out on the floor.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.