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Prepare yourself, because we are going to tackle one of the most confusing issues in proper English. The difference between the usage of lay and lie has been a grammatical nightmare for native English speakers since before the days of Shakespeare. Even the most articulate and educated among us seem to have problems with the distinctions, and you shouldn’t worry if you get confused. But, it is always nice to get it right.
Both lay and lie are verbs related to the action of someone or something being in a prone, horizontal position. The difference essentially falls between what or who is horizontal. This is because, while lay and lie are both verbs, they are different types of verbs. Also, please note that I am not talking about the transitive verb lie, which is the act of telling an untruth, or the noun lie, which is synonymous with a falsehood.
Got that? Stay with me.
Lay is a transitive verb, and is dependent on the presence of a direct object – the person or thing which is part of the action. For example, in the present tense, you lay a book down. The book is the direct object. Another way to look at it is to substitute the word put or place for lay. I will put my files on the table. I will lay my files on the table.
Lie is an intransitive verb, meaning that it is the action itself. I have a headache, and need to lie down. I may lie down all afternoon.
Like sit and set, another similar pair of transitive/intransitive verbs, it all depends on the action. I will set this chair here, and later I will sit in it. That’s an easy concept. Unfortunately, the difference between lay and lie is more complicated. All of this might seem fairly straightforward if there wasn’t that annoying problem of needing to apply these verbs in tenses other than the present.
Here are several examples for the word lie used in various tenses:
I commanded my dog to lie down. He lay down. Now, my dog is lying down in the sunny spot. He has lain there for over an hour.
In proper usage, there is lie, lay, lying, lain.
Still with me? Hang in there.
Here are several examples of the verb lay used in various tenses.
Her teacher told her to lay her cellphone down, so she laid it down on her desk. Soon, the entire class was laying their cellphones down. Now everybody has laid their cellphones down.
Therefore, the tenses which follow lay are laid, laying, and have (or has) laid.
Lain/ had (or has) Laid
Remember, if you can substitute the word with a verb like put or place, you want to use the word lay.
And that’s no lie.