“Hey, Josh,” I asked a colleague at my freelance job, “what’s the difference between lay and lie?”
His answer was quick and confident: “You lay something down and you lie on a bed.” But it wasn’t the answer I wanted. I had just received an email from a reader named Roger who suggested I cover the subject in this column.
Of course, “lay” and “lie” confusion being so famously troubling, it has come up here before. So I was trying to figure out whether it was time to bring it up again. Josh seemed like the perfect test market.
I figured he was a lot like many grammar column readers — the kind of person who would have made note of the correct use of “lay” and “lie” at some point or other. If his memory on the matter had gotten fuzzy, surely it was time to revisit it.
But he was not fuzzy on the subject. He nailed it. I was on my way back to the column-idea drawing board when it hit me to ask a follow-up question: “What about in the past? Yesterday, did you lay down or lie down?”
“Oh, the past is different,” he said.
“How so?” I asked.
“In the past, the rule doesn’t apply,” he said.
That’s as far as he got, giving me all the reason I needed to fulfill Roger’s request: The difference between “lay” and “lie” is simple — until it’s not.
The basic difference is that “lay” requires an object and “lie” does not.
You can’t just lay. You must lay something. In “David lays the book on the table,” the object of the verb is “the book.” David’s acting upon something else. This is called a transitive verb.
Conversely, “to lie” is intransitive. In “David lies down” and “David lies on the couch,” David’s not acting upon some object. He’s just lying down.
It would be were it not for one cruel little twist: The past tense of “lie” just happens to be “lay.” So today, David lies on the couch. But yesterday he lay on the couch.
Where does “laid” come in, you ask? Well, that’s the past tense of “lay.” Today Donna lays the book on the table. Yesterday she laid the book on the table.
If that weren’t enough to worry about, there’s also “lain,” which is the past participle of “lie.” Think of the past participle as the one that goes with some form of “have.” Today David lies on the couch. Yesterday he lay on the couch. In the past he has lain on the couch.
As for that other word, “lay,” its past participle happens to have the same form as its simple past tense. It’s “laid.”
You don’t have to memorize all this. It’s right in your dictionary. Look up “lie” and you’ll see “lay, lain,” indicating its simple past tense and past participle. Look up “lay” and you’ll see “laid, laid.”
But by now you may have noticed that my follow-up question was a trap. When I threw in the word “did,” asking Josh, “Did you lay down or lie down,” I changed the game. Structures with “do” or “did,” which are called “operators,” use the present tense of the verb that follows.
Consider the sentence, “Did you see?” It’s in the past tense, but it takes the “see” instead of the past tense “saw.” That’s because these structures take their tense cue from the first verb “did” and not the verb that follows.
So I did pull a trick on Josh. But it was just to help Roger lay his “lie”/ “lay” concerns to rest.
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.