Snares, Pits, and Caltrops – The things to watch out for, avoid, or be clever about: Lie down and lay down the lie

Welcome to the wonderful world of irregular verbs. These words give everyone problems, whether you’re learning English from another language (where you probably have irregular verbs, so stop complaining) or a native speaker of many years. Here is the thing though: misusing irregular verbs makes your work sound unprofessional.

First, the grammar lesson. What is an irregular verb? Well, it’s a verb that has to change itself up to change tense. You see, usually you just add -d or -ed to the end of a word (to the stem). So walk becomes walked. Talk becomes talked. It’s important you can walk the walk and talk the talk with verbs.

With irregular verbs, you have to change the stem itself in order to create the different tenses. Sometimes, these changes are easy to follow. We all know fly and flew, or hang and hung. You didn’t walk, you ran (from run). Usually the trick with these words is just remembering they’re irregular.

There are two words, however, that will catch just about everyone at some point in their speaking and writing: lay and lie.

Just like with everything else I’ve talked about in this series, expect that you’ll mess it up in writing. Where you want to be aware of the words, and their rules, is when you’re editing. Now to a lesser degree, you want to watch out for sit and set, but they don’t seem to catch us as often.

What is the difference between lie and lay?

To lie down is to change position. (not the untruthful one…that one Americans seem fine with)
To lay down is to change something else’s position.

So, you lay the mattress on the ground and lie down on it.

Lay always requires a direct object, that is something that is being acted upon. Lie never does, though you may want a prepositional phrase or adverb after it.

Be careful, though. You’ll be going about, and suddenly using lay instead of lie. Now, in the present tense, you’re probably doing it because you’re using a prepositional phrase and thinking of a direct object. Remember, the direct object never needs a word to connect it to the verb.

Don’t get too comfortable in past tense when you’re having to use lie and lay. It will catch you there as well. It will catch you one of two ways. Either you will use the wrong word, thinking the right one is wrong, or you’ll be using the wrong meaning’s conjugation.

Confused yet?

This is why we mess it up.

All the time.

Okay, so here’s the break down.

You went to mall. You had a good time. Then you came home and lay on your bed.

Then you say, Ah ha! I caught myself. I used lay instead of lie! And you say to yourself, self, what is the past tense of lie, then?

If you lie to yourself, then you may think the positioning has the same conjugation as the fib, so you must also have lied down on the bed.

You might leave it there, and still be wrong. If you’re feeling a bit nutty you might have lied to your bed; most likely the only time you lied on your bed was to your significant other or yourself.

Now if you catch it, you might think to yourself, oh right! Well, if the past tense of the fib is lied, then past tense of the action is probably laid.

And you used lay once again instead of lie.

So, what is a poor writer to do?

Conjugate.

The most common forms we will use as writers are present, past, and past participle. If you need any other tenses, go here or here.

The basic conjugations are simple:

Present Past Past
Participle
Lie Lay Lain
Lay Laid Laid

Notice that the Past tense of lie is in fact, lay. Consider that a moment and you will finally understand why these two words are such a pain in the English language.

And here’s the breakdown:

You lay your coat on the bed and then lie down. (Present)
Yesterday you laid your coat on the bed and then lay down. (Past)
You realized you had laid your coat on the bed and it had lain there for days. (Past Participle)

My advice for any of the irregular verbs that might trick you is simple: have a quick reference. It can be a website or just an index card.

I have an index card.

Until next time…good writing everyone.

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  1. #1 by francisguenette on June 9, 2013 - 1:38 am

    OK – I may have finally (with the help of the index card I just filled out using your handy-dandy table) got a handle on lie and lay. Now all I have to do is stick that index card to the back of my hand (or maybe something more permanent like a tattoo) and all will be well in my writing life.

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