If any doctor tells me, as I lie in my hospital bed, that my death will not only help others to live, but be symptomatic of the triumph of humanity, I shall watch him very carefully when he next adjusts my drip.—Julian Barnes1

He lays his hands flat on Addie, rocking her a little.—William Faulkner2(p147)

“[A]s I lie in my hospital bed”? Surely Barnes is correct—although some readers might wonder if this should read “as I lay in my hospital bed.” Similarly, Faulkner’s “He lays his hands flat on Addie” sounds correct, but is it really, in a novel in which sentences such as “You lay you down and rest you”2(p37) are used to so effectively communicate the rich idiom of that fictional world? Moreover, when Faulkner titles his novel As I Lay Dying, is he being grammatically correct or simply giving free rein to Addie Bundren’s vernacular? To further complicate matters, where would “lain” and “laid” fit into all this?

Ah, the joys of irregular verbs. In English, forming the simple past and the past participle forms of most verbs is simple—one simply adds -ed to the root form of the verb and is then free to knock off for the day. However, irregular verbs complicate this otherwise blissful state of affairs by requiring writers to memorize alternate forms for the past tenses. True enough, users of English have things pretty easy in this respect compared with users of some other languages, but English has enough irregular verbs—80 or more—to keep things interesting. Further complicating matters is that even the alternate forms of irregular verbs are sometimes irregularly applied—for example, sometimes the present and the past participle are the same (eg, become [present], became [simple past], become [past participle]), sometimes the simple past and the past participle are the same (deal, dealt, dealt), and sometimes the verb does not change form at all (hurt, hurt, hurt). Fortunately, though, memorizing the alternate forms for most irregular verbs seems to pose little problem for most English users.

So why all the angst when it comes to lie? It is just lie, lay, and lain, right? Well, so far so good—but what leads many English users astray is that lay, the simple past tense of lie, is also the present tense of lay, a different verb with a similar meaning. Lie means “To be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position” or “to assume a horizontal position”3(p717); lay means “To put or set down” or “to place for rest or sleep.”3(p705) The difference is that lie is intransitive, meaning it communicates a complete action by itself; lay, in contrast, is transitive, meaning it needs to act on a direct object to communicate a complete thought. So Barnes’ “as I lie in my hospital bed” is correct—as is an imperative such as “You lie down”—because these sentences need no direct object to communicate a complete action. Similarly, “He lays his hands flat on Addie” is correct, as is As I Lay Dying—the former because the present form of lay describes an action on something (in this case, “his hands”) and the latter because lay in that case is not the present of lay but rather the simple past of lie. On the other hand, Faulkner’s “You lay you down and rest you” is not, in the strictest sense, correct—although this instance is interesting, because while the speaker is correctly using a direct object with the transitive lay, the direct object is not a true object but rather a reflexive (and in this case redundant) element, and the choice of verb is incorrect from the start; in effect, the speaker is saying “place yourself down,” which, if judged apart from the idiom of Faulkner’s novel, would clearly be incorrect. The correct form of the sentence would use the intransitive verb: “You lie down.”

So—presuming the English user wishes to use lie or lay in one of the senses indicated above and is not contemplating telling a lie, communicating with a lay audience, or getting the lay of the land—how to simplify this mess?

A few quick tips:

• Determine the correct verb to be used, remembering that lie is intransitive and lay is transitive and requires an object. It might be helpful to remember that lay is often used to mean “to place (something on)”—or, for the mnemonically minded: “to p-lay-ce (something on).”

Lied is never correct as either the simple past or the past participle of lie or lay when used in the senses indicated above—lied is used only when, for example, someone has just lied to someone else.

• For lie, the simple past and past participle forms are lay and lain (I lie dying, I lay dying, I have lain dying).

• For lay, the simple past and past participle forms are laid and laid (He lays his hands flat on Addie, He laid his hands flat on Addie, He has laid his hands flat on Addie).—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Barnes J. Nothing to Be Frightened Of. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2008:177.

2. Faulkner W. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York, NY: Random House; 2000.

3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.

One thought on “Lie/Lay

  1. Thanks for this post. Fighting for lie/lay may be a rearguard action in a battle that’s already lost, but I believe it’s important for writers to get them right. When a writer posts to a blog, “I was laying on the couch,” I find it hard to keep reading. I feel the person is either lazy about writing or not respecting me as a reader.

    I also wonder how much such writers actually read. Lie and lay are almost always used correctly in published books, magazines and newspapers. What kind of writer doesn’t notice or care about even the basics of grammar?

    What we say informally with our friends is one thing. Language is fluid, and expressions come and go. But, as writers, when we use language with care we are conveying to readers that they’re in safe hands.

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