Author Topic: Misuse of “lie” and “lay” punctures many a writer’s command of English  (Read 42824 times)

Joe Carillo

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In the English language, there are some sound-alike and spelled-alike verb pairs that often cause a lot of confusion, and the most troublesome of them is arguably the verb pair “lie” and “lay.” Indeed, who hasn’t been tripped yet by this treacherous verb pair? Over the years, I would often come across writing even by professionals—essays, business reports, position papers, news and feature stories—where “lie” is mistaken for “lay,” and vice versa. The semantic damage to the sentence might be slight, but the misuse of either word nevertheless shows a glaring hole in the writer’s command of English.

In a series of essays about vexing errors in English that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2007, I explained the grammatical reason behind the profound tendency of people to fumble when using “lie” and “lay.” I’m sure that reading the essay will clarify whatever doubts Forum members and guests might have about the usage of these two words, so I decided to post that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum. (December 25, 2010) 
Why we often get into trouble using the verbs “lie” and “lay”

As I’m sure you must have already encountered in your own newspaper or magazine readings, some similar-sounding or somewhat similarly spelled pairs of verbs often get annoyingly misused because it’s not so easy to figure out whether they are being used intransitively or transitively. Among these verb-pairs, easily the most troublesome are the intransitive verb “lie,” which means to stay at rest horizontally, and the transitive “lay,” which means to put or set something down.

The intransitive “lie” is most commonly misused when it’s forced to function as a transitive verb in sentences like this one: “The ousted manager went to his office and laid on the couch.” The correct usage here is, of course, the intransitive past tense “lay”: “The ousted manager went to his office and lay on the couch.” On the other hand, the intransitive, past tense “lay down” is often mistakenly used in sentences like this: “The rebels surrendered and lay down their arms.” This time, the correct usage is the transitive, past-tense “laid down”: “The rebels surrendered and laid down their arms.”

Often, too, the intransitive present tense verb “lay” is misused in sentences like this one: “The geographers are checking precisely where the islands detected recently by satellite lay in the Pacific Ocean.” The correct usage here is the transitive, plural present tense “lie”: “The geographers are checking precisely where the islands detected recently by satellite lie in the Pacific Ocean.”

Why are “lie” and “lay” such problematic verbs? To find out, let’s once again clearly distinguish between intransitive and transitive verbs.

A verb is intransitive when it doesn’t need a direct object to work properly in a sentence, as is the case with “yawned” in this sentence: “During his trial, the unrepentant criminal often yawned.” Here, “yawned” is clearly intransitive. It doesn’t need a direct object, and the sentence is complete without one.

On the other hand, a verb is transitive when it absolutely needs a direct object to receive its action, as is the case with “grip” in this sentence: “He gripped my arm.” Drop the direct object of such verbs and the sentence no longer makes sense: “He gripped.”

Now, the problem with “lie” and “lay” is that apart from the fact that they have somewhat overlapping meanings, they are also highly irregular verbs that inflect or change forms in such unpredictable, confusing ways.

The intransitive “lie,” in the sense of staying at rest horizontally, inflects as follows: “lies” for the singular present tense, as in “She chokes when she lies down”; “lie” for the plural present tense, as in “They choke when they lie down”; “lay” for the past tense, whether singular or plural, as in “She got tired and lay down”; and the past participle “lain” in the perfect tenses, as in “She has lain all day while her husband is away.” None of the usages of “lie” above has a direct object.

Now here’s how the transitive “lay,” in the sense of setting something down, inflects: “lays” for the singular present tense, as in “She meticulously lays breakfast for us”; “lay” for the plural present tense, as in “They meticulously lay breakfast for us”; “laid” for the past tense, as in “We laid our laptops on the table”; and the past participle “laid” for the perfect tenses, as in “They had laid their laptops aside by the time their manager arrived.” Here, every usage of “lie” has a direct object.


Take note that among these inflections, the past tense form of the intransitive “lie”—“lay”—is exactly the same as that of the present tense plural of the transitive “lay”—also “lay.” It is this quirk of the language that makes it difficult for us to see whether “lie” or “lay” is being used transitively or intransitively, so we must be very careful indeed when using these two highly irregular verbs. (September 15, 2007)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 15, 2007 © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: September 10, 2022, 10:52:26 PM by Joe Carillo »

hill roberts

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Thank you. I quite enjoyed this particular lesson. I have seen  often how people confuse the two words. ;D
« Last Edit: December 26, 2010, 05:34:18 PM by hill roberts »