Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Lay" and "lie." Why is this so hard?

I've resisted writing this post for a long time, but when I heard a colleague say that she had "lied in the sun," and she didn't mean she was outside telling an untruth, I figured it was time. This word pair is the one that is most often messed up, and myths abound about which is right and in what context.

I recently heard a radio call-in argument about the subject, and the host obviously had no idea which was correct. When a caller said that "things lay and people lie," the host said that was good enough for him and closed the discussion. How unfortunate that the caller was wrong. Things lie all the time. And people lay things. So let's start at the top.

Lay means "to put or place on a surface" and always requires an object--something put or placed. For example:
  • I'll lay these reports (object) on the credenza in your office.
  • When you've finished, lay your test booklets (object) in the box by the door.
If you use lay, you have to lay something. That's why, "I'm going to lay down for a while" is incorrect. There's nothing put or placed. However, "Now I lay me down to sleep" is correct because there's an object: me. However, in most cases we don't say, "I'm going to lay myself down," so lie is the correct word.

Lie means "to recline" or "to be positioned," and it doesn't take an object.
  • Sue has to lie down in a dark room when she has a migraine.
  • At this time of day, the sun lies just below the horizon.

When you want to talk about what happened in the past, the proper words are laid and lay.

  • I laid the sweater (object) on the chair a couple of hours ago.
  • Joe laid the report (object) on my credenza last week, but I can't find it.
  • Sue lay down until her headache went away.
  • The reports lay on the credenza for a month before anyone got around to reading them.

And the past participle (don't worry about the name; this isn't a grammar test) of these two words are laid and lain.

  • I've laid the reports (object) on your credenza.
  • I'd lain down for only a couple of minutes when the phone rang.

The present participle forms (the -ing form) are laying and lying.

  • I'm laying tile (object) this morning.
  • Don't call after noon. I'll be lying down. Tile work is exhausting.
The same rules apply to set/sit and raise/rise.

Set and raise always require an object. Sit and rise never have an object. For some reason, people don't have quite as much difficulty with these two as they do with lay/lie, although in my neck of the woods, I often hear, "Set down and make yourself comfortable." Here's how to use these word pairs.
  • Please set the plant (object) in the corner.
  • Please sit down.
  • We'll raise the flag (object) at dawn.
  • Please rise for the national anthem.

Because these words are misused so often, saying and writing them correctly may feel odd at first. Persevere. It's OK to be right.

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