A Word, Please: A primer to help you master 'lie,' 'lay'

Lie and lay. They're the grammar stickler's equivalent of a secret handshake. Use these words just so and you're signaling to like-minded language lovers: I'm in, a member of the club, part of the clique.

But do you want in? That's another matter. True, precision use of the language can make for professional, clear, effective writing. But getting "lay" and "lie" right isn't like mastering "palate" and "palette." You can't easily nail them down with a single stroll through the dictionary.

Stickler-perfect "lay" and "lie" usage requires mastering several different language concepts. And when you consider that one of the dictionary's definitions of "lay" is in fact "lie" — that is, that it's not necessarily wrong to use them as synonyms — some people might want to invest their energies elsewhere.

But if you're willing to take on these twin icons of linguistic propriety, here's what you need to know. The difference between "lay" and "lie" is that "lay" is a transitive verb and "lie" is intransitive." (And, yes, I'm talking only of the "lie" that means to recline and not the one that means to tell a fib.)

Transitive verbs take objects. Intransitive verbs don't. "Make" is an example of a transitive verb. In the sentence "Bob makes coffee," the verb "make" has as its direct object the noun "coffee." In grammar-speak, we say that the direct object "receives the action" of the verb. I often sum it up as "the thing being acted upon."

Intransitive verbs don't take objects. "Go" is an example of an intransitive verb. In "Bob goes," the verb needs no noun to complete its thought. The noun doesn't impose its action on some other thing. It's just something Bob does.

Many verbs have both transitive and intransitive forms. You can eat something or you can just eat. You can visit someone or you can just visit. You can walk the dog or you can just walk. The examples are almost endless.

Because "lay" is transitive, you lay a book on the table, you lay a blanket on the bed, you lay your head on the pillow.

The intransitive "lie" does not work with an object like "book," "blanket" or "head." Instead, you simply lie on the bed or just lie down.

That's the easy part. But in the past tense, lay and lie get trickier. That's because the past tense of lie just happens to be lay. So today I lie down, but yesterday I lay down.

Then the past participle, lain, piles on another layer of why-bother frustration.

And of course, lay has its own past tense, which is laid, and past participle, which happens to also be laid.

So it's: Today I lie on the bed. Yesterday I lay on the bed. In the past I have lain on the bed. And it's: 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.

But if that makes lay and lie seem like more trouble than they're worth, I have a simple system to get them right without going nuts: Commit the transitive-versus-intransitive stuff to memory, but do not try to memorize the past forms. Instead, just look them up whenever you need to.

The past tense and past participle forms are listed in the dictionary, right after the main forms of the verb. So immediately after the verb "lie" in most dictionaries you'll see "lay, lain." That's dictionary-speak for "here are the simple past tense and past participles, in that order."

After "lay," you'll see just "laid," dictionary-speak for "this is both the past tense and the past participle."

That should lay the groundwork for anyone who wants to join the club.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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