Sunday, October 21, 2007

Did I Lay That on the Couch?

If there exists one set of words that forces me to stop and think when writing (and again when editing), it's lay and lie. I avoid them with put, place, set, leave, lounge, drape, or any other word I can find. I decided today that I will no longer choose the chicken's way but that I will learn the difference for once and all.

The problem comes not from the difference between the words themselves. “Lay” means to put something somewhere while “lie” means to recline or “lie down”. You can also lie to someone, but that layer of confusion we don't need so I'll leave it out.

It turns out that you can tell the difference between the words by considering whether the verb needs an object. If you use the word “lay” you have to include what is being laid in order to complete the sentence. Laying requires the subject to act on something while lying reflects that the subject acts, if only by changing position. Normally this requires a prepositional phrase to indicate the location but the subject that lays on something acts on himself or herself.

Why do the two words get confused? The past tens of lie is lay. Unless you write in the present tense, telling your readers that your protagonist was lying on a couch or bed means writing that they lay there. “Bob lay on the couch listlessly.” This sounds much like “Bob lay his jacket on the couch listlessly.” Note, however, that the second sentences shows Bob acting on an object, his jacket, rather than himself.

You must know the difference so that you can keep your tense consistent when writing. If you use one version of lay then the other version will not be identical. Thus, “Bob lay on the couch and laid his mail aside.”




I remember this one because, when I was young, the woman next door was an English teacher. One day she called to her dog, "Lay down!"

My father sputtered and fumed about her incorrect choice of words. And she was an English teacher!

Found your blog via NaBloPoMo, and enjoyed reading it. Good luck!



Thanks! Perhaps your neighbor said, "Lay yourself down!" ;) Probably not.