How to Use Lie, Lay, and Laid and Lain
I don’t know if I ever heard anyone use, or even try to use, lain in the proper manner; however, lie, lay, and laid are different stories. And no matter how many times we have been taught, the rules don’t seem to stick. Lie, lay, and laid are those rare verbs that escape proper use.
I’m not saying I will make you remember; however, I might have a trick that will work.
Lie, Lay, and Laid by the Book
First, let’s tackle the rules (grammatically). The verb, to lie, means to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position. The opposite of stand.The conjugation for lie is lay is the past tense, and lain is the past perfect. (more on conjugation later). Lie, lay, and laid is confusing enough without bringing conjugation into the picture.
Almost no one gets this right. Even idiomatic expressions are wrong and are in danger of becoming entrenched. Consider—lie down on the job—it is more commonly known as ‘lay down on the job’. Or the even more common term, ’lie low‘,* has come to be known as ‘lay low’. If you say ‘lay low’, no one will look at you twice, but say ’lie low’* and you’ll draw more than a few sideways glances.
If someone says to you, The cops are looking for me. I think I’ll lie low for a while, they would be grammatically correct, but still in trouble with the law; however, if they said, the cops are looking for me. I think I’ll lay low for a while, they would be using the wrong word, but it would sound more natural. This error has come to such common use, that most dictionaries recognize it as acceptable, and you hear it more often than not. This is a shame as it further confuses the lie, lay, and laid issue. TensesThe primary confusion of lie/lay comes because of the commonality of words. See table below.
Lie is an intransitive verb and doesn’t require an object, while lay is a transitive verb and will be followed by a direct object .
Lay means to place some thing or some one down.If you’re like me, none of that means crap to you. You might as well be talking to the wall.
So, what about the child’s prayer—now I lay me down to sleep?
Since you are saying lay me, you technically have an object, so grammatically, it is correct, though it might be damn difficult to lay yourself down. Picture a ghost of yourself picking up your body and laying it down to sleep. Maybe that will help you to remember it.
How to Remember
It’s easy to remember (he says with a cackle). After all, it’s only taken me sixty years.
Picture of pen placed on paper.
As we already know, one of the most confusing comparisons in the English language is the difference between lie and lay. It has long been disputed, and has even longer been misused. How often do you hear anyone use it in the proper sense, of ‘yesterday, I lay down for a nap?’ Probably close to never, unless you hang out with a band of nerdy grammarians. Usually, you’ll hear, ‘yesterday, I laid down for a nap,’ and no one bats an eye at that statement. The correct way to say it is, ‘I am going to lie down for a nap,’ or ‘I lay down for a nap, yesterday,’ or ‘There have been days when I have lain down for two naps.’
Write me a letter if you ever hear someone use lain that way, though, as it might be a first.
On the other hand, lay, (when used as placed) is typically used properly. ‘I am going to lay the pencil on your desk.’ Or, ‘I laid the pen there an hour ago.’ Or, ’Yesterday, I had laid the eraser alongside the pen.’ Remember this: you shouldn’t use laid if it is in conjunction with sleep or rest–unless–it takes an object. So the statement, ‘yesterday, I laid him down to sleep,’ is correct, but ‘yesterday, I laid down to sleep,’ is not correct. In the first example, you laid someone (him) down to sleep. It has an object. In the second example, it has no object.
Dogs lying in bed
I Lied About Grammar
I told you I wouldn’t expect you to learn grammar, but I lied—a little. The verb lay, as in, to place, requires an object; in other words, you need to have something to lay down. You can’t tell someone to lay down or they have a perfect right to ask, ‘lay what down’.So don’t be surprised if the next time you tell your dog to ‘lay down’ he/she asks you, ‘Lay what down’? You might be surprised that he spoke, but don’t be surprised that he questioned your grammar.
Tip—Which Word to Use? 🐗 : If you can substitute the word ‘place’ for the word, it is usually lay (present tense), as in, ‘Place’ (lay) the pencil on the desk.
If placed, fits better, it requires laid (past tense), as in, I ‘placed’ (laid) the pencil on the desk. Not only does this method tell you if it works, but it also indicates the tense (place=lay and placed=laid). You couldn’t say ’I am going to ‘place’ down to sleep. Or ’last night I ‘placed’ down to sleep. It sounds ridiculous and doesn’t make sense.
I’ll say it again—substitute place or placed
. If they make sense, use either lay
(for place) or laid
(for placed). If the substitution doesn’t make sense, use lie
for present tense or lay
for past tense. There are other ways to tell the difference. Check out No Mistakes Grammar, Volume I.
You might learn more than you want.
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Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas
about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books
including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. See the complete list here
He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”
- idiomatic expressions are informal sayings that have a different meaning than the one expressed by the words. An example would be ‘hold your tongue’ as an idiomatic expression for ‘keep your mouth shut’.
- 1 A direct object receives the action of the verb, so the direct object will be whatever it is you’re laying
- Who are you laying—me.