Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Light in the Darkness II

Today's candle might seem like a cliche, as I intend to cover one of the grammar mistakes that is often held up as an example of a grammar mistake. I will be discussing "lie" and "lay".

I f**king hate this meme. Why did I put it in my blog?

"Lie" has several meanings, including multiple meanings as a verb, but the ones with which I am concerned here are "to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position, as on a bed or the ground; recline" and "(of objects) to rest in a horizontal or flat position: 'The book lies on the table.'" It is easy to understand; every English speaker knows what you mean when you say or write, "I lie in the mud" or "I am lying in my open grave, staring at the sky". The difficulty comes in with the similarity between some of the past forms of "lie" and some of the forms of "lay".

"Lay", in the definition that concerns us here, means "to put or place". Examples would include, "Every day I lay the bloody axe on the table as soon as I return from the field".

So far it seems easy. But what happens if you are talking about the past?

"Last night I lay in my open grave, and someone tragically slipped and fell on top of me."

"Yesterday, I laid my bloody axe on the table, but the axe slipped, due to the head still stuck on the blade."


The simple past tense of "lie" is "lay". The simple past tense of "lay" is "laid". But it gets a bit more confusing still. The past perfect, the one that uses the helping verb "had", uses the past participle form. For "lie" this is "lain", as in, "I had lain undisturbed for centuries, but since last summer, the zombies have overrun my cemetery."

The past perfect of "lay" is "laid", so it looks something like this. "He had laid his severed head beside the coffin, but the gimp carried the head away."

But there is just a bit more. There is also the present continuous, and that uses a to be helping verb (am/is/are) and the present participle. It looks like this.

"I am lying in wait for my enemies."
"I am laying out the corpses for burial."

So, this is what we have.

(had) Lain

(had) Laid

If you could replace the word with "place" then you should be looking at the "lay" list. The only remedy for this error is rote memorization. This particular candle is often blown out by the wind, but I refuse to let it go dark.

If you have any requests for a grammar point to be addressed, let me know!


  1. This is a great series! I rely much too often on the 'it doesn't look/sound right' school of grammar, and love reading the technical reasons behind it all.

    You should cover 'that' vs 'which' :)

  2. Good idea, Caitlin! That'll be the next one.


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