Time for a quick lesson with the English teacher!
Several readers have asked me to explain how to use the verbs lie and lay--and no wonder, because this can get tricky. Here's the scoop.
Obviously the word lie can mean "to tell an untruth." When this word is used, the conjugation is simple: present tense lie; past tense lied; past participle lied. No problems.
**Stop right there for a minute. Did you feel a little sick when I used the word "conjugation"? It's not a big deal, really. Conjugation is simply the word used in grammar for the listing of the different forms of a verb. A verb's conjugation is the list of the forms of the verb for present tense, past tense, and past participle. The past participle is the form of the verb that you would use in conjunction with an auxiliary or helping verb. Sometimes it's the same as the simple past tense; sometimes it is different. For example, the verb eat: Conjugation is eat, ate, eaten. I eat breakfast every day (present tense); I ate three cookies yesterday (past tense); I have eaten a whole bag of chips (past participle).**
More confusing is when the word lie means "to recline." That's what we'll tackle here.
Here's a simple but important rule: to lie means "to recline"; to lay means "to put in place." In the present tense, the word lie never requires a direct object and the word lay always requires a direct object.
- I'm tired; I think I'll go lie down.
- Lay the book on the desk, please.
I think we get confused with lie and lay because there is some weird overlap in the conjugations of the two words. Obviously the present tense of lay is lay, but that word is also the past tense of lie. Eeek!
- Go lie down right now. (present tense)
- She looked tired earlier, but she lay down for awhile and is now feeling fine. (past tense)
- She laid the pile of clothes on the bed.
Just for reference, here's the conjugation of both words:
Present tense Past tense Past participle
lie lay lain
lay laid laid
When was the last time you heard someone say, "If she had lain down when she first started feeling sick, she might not have been so ill"? It just doesn't happen very often. Most of us don't ever use the word "lain," even if it is correct. And you know what? It probably doesn't matter very much. I love to use words correctly, of course, but once again I come back to my philosophy that the purpose of language is communication--and our communication is probably not hampered too much by failing to use the correct past participle of the verb lie. So here's my advice: learn to use the present and past tenses correctly, and don't worry too much about the past participle unless you really have a strong desire to be precise or you're speaking or writing in a situation that demands perfect usage.
Here's a little quiz:
- Go __________ (lie/lay) down.
- __________ (lie/lay) down your burden.
- He was very sleepy, so he __________ (lay/laid) down and rested.
- She __________ (lay/laid) those things on the bed and left the room.
If you filled in the blanks with 1. lie, 2. lay, 3. lay, and 4. laid, you're doing great!
Now I think I'll go lie down for awhile.