This topic was requested by kario12, and I thank you because the verbs lay/lie present a special challenge--they are so frequently misused in speech that many writers choose the wrong form (including me).
I will try my hardest to explain things in simple terms, but if anything is still confusing for you, please let me know.
First off, let's state what the definitions of lay and lie are:
To lay - to put or to place something.
To lie - to rest or to recline.
Subject Versus Object
Before you can choose between lay and lie, you have to determine whether you are talking about the subject or the object of a sentence.
The subjects of a sentence are the people or things doing something, and the objects of the sentence are having something done to them.
If you remember part i. - parts of speech, you'll know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. For those who forgot (or are too lazy to go back and look), here's a brief summary:
Transitive verbs take their action on something--the object. If you remove the object from these sentences, they don't make sense:
Intransitive verbs don't need an object; they can take action all by themselves. No object is necessary for these sentences:
For sentences with intransitive verbs, you could shorten them down to:
And they'd still be complete sentences.
The Important Distinction Between Lay and Lie
Lay requires a (direct) object.
Lie does not.
I lie on the bed because I am taking an action (and there is no direct object).
But I lay the book on the table because lay refers to the book, which is the target of my action (making the book the direct object).
Some of you may be thinking, "Isn't I the object?" The English language doesn't like to follow logic, so the answer would be no.
I am the controller of the action, not the object. So I am in control to lie on the bed; and I am in control of the book, which is the object, so I lay the book on the table.
Conjugating Lay and Lie
Now that you know which verb to use, let's focus on the tenses in the different forms they take.
So, let's break it down further:
"I lay the book on the desk every day."
I lay the book on the desk because lay refers to the book, which is the target of my action (making the book the direct object).
"I lie in bed every day."
I lie in bed because I can just shorten the sentence to: "I lie."
Let's try the past tense:
"I laid the book on the desk yesterday."
Laid is the past tense version of lay. The book is still the object of this sentence no matter what tense it is in, so you would use lay, not lie, in this sentence.
"I lay in bed yesterday."
This is where the English language just likes to mess with you and laugh. Lay is the past tense of lie. I know, you're probably ready to tear your hair out of your head. I'm there with you.
So, because I am reclining in bed, no matter the tense, I use lie. But since it is in past tense, I use lay, not as the act of placing something, but as the past tense of lie.
I hope I'm not being too redundant here.
The thing to remember about present participles is that the verbs always end in -ing.
As for past participles, verbs usually end in -ed. However, if it's a special verb (like lay and lie), it can end in -n (lain), -t (built), or -k (drunk).
All of this is also mentioned in part i. parts of speech.
If you're thinking you'll never remember this, don't worry. Practice will help, and, honestly, I still have to look up most of them every time.
Here's a "Grammar Girl" tip:
Everyone knows that hens lay eggs. Because eggs is the object of the sentence, you can always remember that lay needs an object. Another way to remember is to think of the line "Hens lie down to lay eggs."
But referencing the chart above can help. That's what I do every time I'm confused about which version to use.
So, a summary of steps to take are as follows:
1. Figure out if there is an object in your sentence.
2. Yes? It's a transitive verb--use lay.
3. No? It's an intransitive verb--use lie.
4. Now apply the tense it is in.
If a light bulb lit up in your head after reading this, please give it a vote.
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