Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lay or Lie? - writing tip

Question: Todays e-mail brought a note from a former student on when to use lay or lie. I knew this, or thought I did, but people in my critique group are arguing about it, so I thought I'd ask you. Hope you don't mind....

Answer: I don't mind at all as it's something that's easy to be confused about. Despite what we all learned at our mothers’ knee, “Now I lay me down to sleep” is archaic use of the English language and no longer correct. Be careful of “Lay” and “Lie”usage.

Lie is a verb, with tenses lie, lay, lain. So "lay" is the past tense of lie. I will lie down, I did lay down. I have lain down, and the past participle is "was lying." She was lying down. Never was laying.

Lie can also be an adjective describing a situation, as in “the lie of the land,” and can be both a noun (he told a lie) or a verb (You lied!) when the meaning is that of telling an untruth.

Lay, another verb, has the tenses lay, laid, and has laid. Lay is interchangeable with lie, only if used as an adjective (the lay of the land), but it’s use as a verb mean to put or set down. For example you can “set the table” or “lay the table.” Webster’s Ninth does not list “layed” and I don’t believe it is a real word, though I have seen it in print. Lay can also mean that something is produced, as when a hen lays an egg. But she laid the egg, or she had laid the egg, if you get into past and past perfect tenses of “lay” when the chicken and egg kind of lay is used. One joking way to remember is, “Objects lay, people lie or get laid. People sit, but objects get set.”

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