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Opinion

Column: A Word, Please: The words ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ continue to meld together in usage

The distinction between “lay” and “lie” continues to fade.

Almost without exception, people say, “I laid on the couch.” They never seem to say, “I lay on the couch.”

Plus, people usually throw in the word “down,” making the distinction between “I lay down” and “I laid down” almost undetectable to the ear.

Using “lie” in place of “lay” isn’t quite as common. But it’s not unheard of for someone to say, “Lie that book down on the table,” instead of the correct “lay.”

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Past tense forms give us even more evidence that these words are melding.

When is the last time you heard someone use the past participle “lain” or even saw it in print?

None of this is a problem. Dictionaries, our referees on such matters, allow a lot of overlap of “lay” and “lie.”

If you’re not clear on the difference and have better things to do than study up, whatever way these words fall from your lips is probably just fine.

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Chances are, if you’re fluent in English, the way you use these words can never be labeled “wrong.”

But there are a few realms where more rigid guidelines for “lay” and “lie” still apply — environments where you most certainly can make mistakes: professional and academic writing.

Editors and academics adhere to different standards than those of us who say, “I laid down on the couch yesterday.” If you want your usage to live up to their standards, it’s good to know the rules of “lay” and “lie” in proper English.

Some verbs, like “show,” are transitive. A transitive verb takes an object. Its action is performed on a noun or pronoun. Show your cards. Show a movie. Show courage.

Some more examples of transitive verbs: give, play, teach, eat, crave, write, send, play and offer.

Other verbs, like “sneeze,” are intransitive, meaning they take no object. When you say, “I sneezed,” your sentence is complete. You don’t sneeze something. You just sneeze.

Examples of intransitive verbs include go, smile, fall, sit, run, arrive and cry.

Many verbs, perhaps most, can be either. You can say “I ate” or you can say “I ate lasagna.” You can say “He screamed” or you can say “He screamed obscenities.”

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Verbs like “be,” “become” and “seem” are neither transitive nor intransitive. They’re called copular verbs or linking verbs, meaning that they refer back to the subject.

When a word follows a copular verb, it’s not an object. It’s called a complement. In “He is the goalie,” the copular verb, “is,” has a noun phrase as its complement: “the goalie.” Adjectives can be complements, too. “She seems angry” uses copular “seem” with its adjective complement “angry.”

In proper English, “lie” is intransitive and “lay” is transitive. If the action is being applied to an object, like a book, you want the transitive verb: Lay the book on the table. But if the action is reclining, you don’t do that to something. It’s intransitive. So you lie: I lie on the couch. Let me lie here a while. Go lie down.

Keep separate the form of “lie” that means to tell an untruth — a different word altogether.

It’s in the past tense that lay and lie get tricky. The simple past tense of “lay” is “laid” and the past participle, the one that works with a form of “have,” is also “laid.” Today, I lay the book on the table. Yesterday, I laid the book on the table. In the past, I have laid the book on the table.

The simple past tense of “lie” is “lay,” which causes a lot of confusion. The past participle of “lie” is “lain.” Today, I lie down. Yesterday, I lay down. In the past, I have lain down.

If you don’t want to talk like that, you don’t have to. But if you’re shooting for proper English and you can’t remember those forms, they’re right in the dictionary next to the main verb.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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