My Aunt Irene taught me that prayer when I was still young enough to think of God as a super hero who always vanquished the bad guy (Satan). Now I use it as a reminder of whether to use lie or lay in a sentence. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I still have to think about whether I should lie, lay, lain, or laid. So here are some tips that help me and perhaps will help you use the correct form in your speaking and writing.
- to recline
- intransitive verb (one that does not take an object)
- lay (past tense)
- lain (past participle)
- lying (present participle)
- to place
- transitive verb (one that takes an object)
- laid (past tense)
- laid (past participle)
- laying (present participle)
Most people don’t think about participles and tenses, we just say or write what we think “sounds” right. But most people do (or should) know what it means when a verb “takes an object” or doesn’t. If you take a college-level course in French or Spanish, you can’t pass the course without learning about objects and direct objects.
As it says above, lie does not take an object. I am going to lie down on the table. I is the subject, the noun that is going and the thing that is going to lie. In contrast, lay does take an object. I am going to lay the book down on the table. I is still the subject, the noun that is going, but now the book is the object–the thing being laid.
Now I lay me down to sleep may be what has caused all the confusion: In that case, I is still the subject, and me is the object, the thing being lay down.
Another way you might remember the difference is to think about the meaning of the words lie and lay—lie is to recline and lay is to place. So in the examples above, you could say I am going to recline (lie down) on the table, and I am going to place (lay) the book on the table. (lie has an i and so does recline; lay has an a and so does place.)
How about lain and laid? One way to remember it is the n in lain—no object: I had lain in the bed for hours or I had laid the book on the table.
If you just take a nanosecond to think about what is doing the laying or lying, you’ll be able to choose the right word.