Lying and Laying

Over the past several years, I’ve read a few manuscripts from friends and fellow authors (published as well as unpublished) in a situation where I’ve been asked to comment on the writing and give feedback.  Some have been good, some not so good.  Of the manuscripts I’ve read, two general mistakes seem to be more common than others.  I’m referring specifically to the incorrect use of “lie” vs. “lay,” and the use of an unclear antecedent for a pronoun.  I’m going to concentrate on the former in this post, and leave the latter for another day.

It’s entirely possible my comments here about “lie” vs. “lay” won’t be any different than a lot of others you may have read, because trying to describe the difference between them comes down to their basic definition.  Perhaps, though, by sheer constant repetition writers will come to learn the difference between the two.  So here’s my take on the distinction.

The verb “to lie” (ignoring it’s use in telling a fib) is intransitive.  That is, it does not require a direct object to complete the action.  (Remember all those direct objects you learned in high school English?)  A transitive verb does.  The “trans-” part means a going across, or movement.  Like transport, or translation, or something similar.  In other words, the action of the verb is being carried across.  That means a transitive verb implies some sort of action is being carried out, and the direct object completes that action.  So, “to lie,” being intransitive, doesn’t have that object.  An intransitive verb is complete by itself.  “I lie on the bed,” is present tense.  “I lay on the bed,” past tense.  In these cases, “the bed” is the object of the preposition “on”, and not a direct object.  It doesn’t matter what I lie on, the action is complete in itself.  I’m simply lying there.  The past participle of “lie” is “lain.”  For example, “By tomorrow at 4PM, I will have lain on the bed.”  That’s future perfect.

The verb “to lay,” on the other hand, is transitive.  It requires a direct object to complete the action.  “To lay” implies that some object is placed somewhere.  “I lay the umbrella on the bed,” present tense.  “I lay on the bed,” used alone in its present tense meaning is, strictly, incorrect.  Any form of “lay” requires an object to complete the action.  The past tense of “lay” is “laid.”  “I laid the umbrella on the bed yesterday.”  The past participle is also “laid.”  “By tomorrow at 4 PM, I will have laid the umbrella on the bed.”

Undoubtedly the confusion comes from the fact that the word “lay” occurs in both meanings.  I’ve seen “lay” in such a construction as “I decided to lay on the bed and take a nap,” several times, and although it’s not correct, it is fairly common.  I’ve heard it in speech as well.  If I can offer any way of distinguishing between the two, it would be to look for some sort of object that is the recipient of the action.  If you’re just going to recline on the bed, use “lie.”  If you’re going to put something on the bed, use “lay.”

Now I think I’ll go take a nap.

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