JS Tip 125: From the Writing Workshops: Lay versus Lie, Part I

Scott Allen of WesTech Engineering asks, “Please address ‘lay’ and ‘lie.’ Did I lay down? Did I lie down? Why does taking a nap have to be so dang confusing?”   

First thing: We’re not talking about telling a fib. (“You lie!”) We’re talking about putting something on the table or leaning back on the sofa (to watch college football).

The key to the discussion is tense: Present tense and past tense. When the action is happening. We’ll talk about present tense this week. We’ll talk about past tense next week. Oh, yeah. This makes sense: present tense now; past tense next week—in the future.    

Present Tense: It’s Happening Now

Lay requires a direct object: A duck lays an egg. (Egg is the direct object. It’s the object the duck lays.) A judge lays down the law. (Law is the direct object. It’s what the judge lays down.)

Lie takes no direct object. So you lie down on the sofa (no direct object). “I think I’ll go lie down now. I need a nap.” (If the judge lies down, she’s probably in chambers.)

Mignon Fogarty, the internet Grammar Girl, uses this trick:  

The way I remember is to think of the phrase lay it on me. You're laying something (it, the direct object) on me. It's a catchy, dorky, 1970s kind of phrase, so I can remember it and remember that it is correct.

Forget Eric Clapton and Lay Down Sally. Forget Bob Dylan and Lay Lady Lay. Both are wrong. They’re songwriters, not grammarians.

If you have questions, let us know. We love this stuff.

Next week: lay and lie in the past tense.