How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid #amwriting

Every now and then, the most paradoxical mystery in the written universe rears its head—the question, “Is it lay, lie, or what?” Today we will revisit one of the more misused verbs in the English language: the many tenses and uses of the verb ‘lay.’

How the written universe works 3In the written narrative, the many forms of this verb are what antimatter is to ordinary matter. When used improperly, things unravel. The problem is, we routinely use the words lay and lie and all their forms incorrectly as a matter of habit in our daily speech.

We are accustomed to hearing the wrong use of verb forms in conversation. However, we notice incorrect usage when reading. This paradox causes confusion for our readers when we misuse the verb “lay” and all its tenses in a narrative.

Don’t feel alone in this. Even editors struggle with the words lay, lie, and laid and regularly refer to grammar guides to remind themselves of the correct usage.

I often have to stop in my own work and make sure I am using it correctly.

Do I mean to lay down or lie down?

It boils down to a simple concept: is the object of the verb RECLINING, or was it PLACED THERE?

transitive verb“Lay” is a transitive verb that refers to putting something in a horizontal position. At the same time, “lie” is an intransitive verb that refers to being in a flat position.

“Lay” is a verb meaning to put or place something somewhere. It has a direct object. Its principal parts are “lay,” “laid,” “laid,” and “laying.”

The words refer to the action: If you place it (object) there, it is laying there. Lay it there. Lay it on the pillow.

If it is resting or reclining, it is lying there.

  • Lie down.
  • Lying down.
  • Lie down, Sally. (Clapton had it wrong? Say it isn’t so!)

The internet is your friend. The following is a quote from the website, Get it Write: 

[1] The verbs to lie and to lay have very different meanings. Simply put, to lie means “to rest,” “to assume or be situated in a horizontal position,” and to lay means “to put or place.” (Of course, a second verb to lie, means “to deceive,” “to pass off false information as if it were the truth,” but here we are focusing on the meaning of to lie that gives writers the most grief.)

Languages change, and we are certainly moving toward a time when style and grammar books no longer distinguish between lay and lie, but we aren’t there yet.

intransitive verbTo lie is an intransitive verb: it shows action, and the subject of the sentence engages in that action, but nothing is being acted upon (the verb has no direct object).

Put another way, the verb to lie does not express the kind of action that can be done to anything. Remember that it means “to recline” or “to rest.”

It is conjugated this way:

  • lie here every day. (Everyone lies here. They lie here.)
  • am lying here right now.
  • lay here yesterday.
  • will lie here tomorrow.
  • have lain here every day for years. [1]

Lay, Lie, Laid chart

This is where things get tense: present, past, and future.

A ring lay on the pillow. 

  • Present tense: I lay an object on the pillow.
  • Future tense: I will lay an object on the pillow.
  • Past tense: I laid an object on the pillow.

But I needed to rest. In this context, lie is a verb meaning to recline. It requires no direct object, and its principal parts are lie, lay, lain, and lying.

  • I’m going to lie in bed for another hour.
  • I feel safe lying in my bed.
  • I had lain in bed long enough, so I got up.

So, what this all boils down to is:

matter antimatter LIRF04102022 The verb that means “to recline” is “to lie,” not “to lay.” If we are talking about the act of reclining, we use “lie,” not “lay.” “When I have a headache, I lie down.”

The verb laid must have a direct object. Something is put or placed: “I laid my papers on your desk after the meeting.” In our modern dialect, the verb laid is used far less often than put, set, or placed, so it has become confusing.

But just to confuse things a lot more:

A living body lies down and rests.

A dead body is cleaned up and laid out by other people if the said corpse is important to them. However, after being laid out, the corpse is lying in state to allow mourners to pay their respects.


Previous posts in the series, How the Written Universe Works:

How the written universe works part 1: the connecting particle 

How the written universe works part 2: the physics of conversation 

This post: How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid


[1] Quote from: To Lie, or To Lay, by Nancy Tuten, Get it Write online, To Lie or To Lay? | Get It Write Online, accessed April 10, 2022.


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16 responses to “How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid #amwriting

  1. Reblogged this on wordrefiner and commented:
    I would be lying if I said it was easy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Lie and lay always catch me out, thanks for this article, Connie 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  3. petespringerauthor

    The use of lay and lie is straightforward, but it doesn’t help that the past tense of lie is lay. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to open a study guide to see If I’ve used them correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: How the Written Universe Works part 4: Relativity and Possessives #amwriting | Life in the Realm of Fantasy

  5. Awwwww! Thanks Connie! I think the next weekend will be a good time getting closer to this. What a wonderful and useful posting. Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jaq

    What about past tense lie?

    In common speech we often say “I laid down for an hour.”

    In some books I’ve seen “He lied down.” It doesn’t sit right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! It’s difficult to remember and totally convoluted because we do misuse it in common speech., But the past tense of Lie as in recline is Lay. “He lay there for an hour.”
      I will lie there. I have lain there. I lay in bed far too long this morning. As I was lying there, my alarm went off.

      Liked by 1 person

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