Q&A: Lie vs Lay?

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Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, we lay down the grammar law…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been looking through our mailbag and–
A: Wait, what? We have a “mailbag”? Cool!

Q: I know, right? Anyway, Samantha was wondering if we could cover the differences between “lie” and “lay” this week. She’s increasingly frustrated by the sheer number of peeps who keep getting it wrong.
A: Fair enough. Well, we can’t promise a societal shift in usage, but let’s lay it on thick with some grammar goodness, shall we?

Q: We shall.
A: A big issue is that the word “lay” is a bit of a time traveller.

Q: Great Scott! Is there a DeLorean involved?
A: Probably not. We say “time traveller” because “lay” exists in both a present tense and past tense form – but for two different teams.

Q: Okay, slow down. Please explain.
A: Well, we have two types of verbs – transitive (e.g. “lay”) and intransitive (e.g. “lie”).

Q: And what’s the difference between “transitive” and “intransitive”? But please don’t say–
A: The little “in” at the front of the second one…

Q: You’re hilarious.
A: Seriously though, both are action verbs – things happen when they’re about. But if it’s a transitive verb, those things are happening to a direct object that follows the verb. And if it’s intransitive, they’re just, well, happening. No object – just the subject doing the action.

Q: So with “lay” and “lie” in the present tense?
A: Yeah, so, “lay” is transitive – you need to lay SOMETHING down. For example, “Valerie lays the frozen berries down on the bench and frowns,” or, “why don’t you lay that book down?”

Q: And “lie”?
A: It’s intransitive – no object directly following. “I will lie down on this bed of nails,” or, “please lie here for a moment while I get the cold metal instruments”.

Q: Yeah, Samantha said she often sees people writing, “I will lay in the grass and look at the stars.” But that should be “I will lie in the grass,” yeah?
A: That’s right. And more confusion is coming. Because the past tense of “lie” just happens to also be the word “lay”…

Q: Oh, yippee. Thanks English language, you never fail to disappoint.
A: Yeah it’s annoying. “Yesterday, I lay on the couch and watched every episode of Game of Thrones, back to back.”

Q: I love a good Game of Thrones wedding…
A: Indeed. So here, “lay” is past tense of “lie” – that free-and-easy intransitive verb, simply meaning to get horizontal.

Q: Speaking of getting horizontal, where does the slang “get laid” fit in?
A: Nowhere really. It’s an idiom – and just like knighting a prince, it doesn’t need to make sense.

Q: I think I need a lie-down after all this. Can you do a quick summary for me?
A: Sure thing. So, team 1: LAY, means to put something down. (“She lay the pen softly on the desk.”) The past tense is “laid” – NOT “lay”. (“Earlier, Liz gently laid the kitten down onto the ukulele.”) The past participle is also “laid”. (“I have laid down the law.”) And the present participle is “laying”. (“I am laying this coat on this puddle,” said Sir Walter.)

Q: So that’s the first team: LAY(s)-LAID-LAID-LAYING. Got it. And team “LIE”?
A: “LIE” here simply means to rest/recline. (“I want to lie on this bed of feathers.”) Past tense is “lay”. (“I lay on the feathers for hours.”) Past participle is “lain”. (“She would have lain there all day if she hadn’t found that pea.”). And the present participle is “lying”. (“She is lying on another bed now.”) Got it?

Q: LIE(s)-LAY-LAIN-LYING. You’ve almost laid it to rest. But what about Bruno Mars singing, “today I don’t feel like doing aaaanything, I just want to lay in my bed”?
A: He’s wrong – it should’ve been “…lie in my bed”. But it is called “The Lazy Song” after all!

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