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Wordsmithing: The Two-Step Cure For “Lie” Or “Lay”

Don’t worry. I’m not going to lay a pop quiz on you. Goodness, the fact that you’re reading a grammar column already tells me how addled you are—but also how willing to not lie down on the job, right? Lay aside your fears, friend. What I offer is not snake oil but a cure that truly lies within your reach.

Step 1: Flush out the difference

What’s the difference between “lie” and “lay”? A direct object.

Girl napping on the groundYes, it’s that simple! “Lie” (meaning to rest or recline) never takes a direct object. So look at your sentence and see if there is a direct object. If there isn’t, then use “lie.”

I’m going to lie down and take a nap.
The resort lies in a beautiful valley.
Herein lies my dilemma. (My dilemma lies herein.)
Fido, lie down! (Remember that down, up, and aside are adverbs and do not affect the presence of a direct object.)

“Lay” (meaning to put, place, or set) always takes a direct object.

I’m going to lay down my tired bod and take a nap.
Where should I lay these papers?
Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.
Lay down your head, Tom Do-oo-ley/Lay down your head and cry-y-y-y.

In the children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” the poem needed an extra beat—hence the use of “lay” and the direct object “me” instead of “Now I lie down to sleep …”

Take a gander at the opening paragraph. See the direct objects with “lay” and none with “lie”?

Step 2: Swallow a memory pill

Take a memory pill and memorize the conjugations.You must memorize the conjugation of the two verbs or you’ll remain forever addled.

lie – lay – lain: I lie down today, I lay down yesterday, I have lain down all week.
lay – laid – laid: I lay rules today, I laid rules yesterday, I have laid rules all week.

You see the nausea factor—uh huh, two “lays.” Not a problem if you take your pill and memorize the two conjugations. Simply figure out which verb you’d use in the present tense, and then use the correct conjugation in the past tense or past participle tense.

Example: Which is correct in the past tense? The book lay on the table—or—the book laid on the table.
Solution: go to the present tense of “lie” and “lay.”

The book lies on the table—or—the book lays on the table. There is no direct object; therefore “lie” is correct in the present tense.

Now conjugate “lie”: lie, lay, laid. The past tense of “lie” is “lay”; therefore the correct answer is: The book lay on the table.

Yep, that’s taking three left-hand turns to make a right, but it works! First, get it correct in the present tense, and then put it in that verb’s past or past participle tense.

Two steps—that’s all it takes to be rid of the brain-muddling. The use (or not) of a direct object settles which verb to use. The Hershey kissconjugation of the verb matches the correct word to its tense.

Chocolate is an acceptable payment, thank you. Lay one on me!


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