Tips from Your Editor: Lay vs. Lie

“It’s gonna be so sunny this weekend, I can’t wait to lay out!”

“Ugh, I have a headache, I need to lay down.”

“Can you lay that dress out on the bed for me so it doesn’t get wrinkled?”

Show some leg beach day

Which sentence sounds right to you? All of them? One of them? None?

Due to some rigorous reminders during my upbringing, I have a pretty strong sense of which one is correct, and I cringe at the others (this is the case with a lot of grammar/usage stuff, actually). I can’t help myself. Now, I’ve also had a lot of instruction about how to be not an asshole socially adept, so I don’t correct these lay/lie-misusers unless they’re my good friends and put up with my annoyingness in lots of other ways.

The answer, of course, is that only the last one is correct. Why? Well, it’s easy. “Lay” is the past tense of “lie.” “Lay” also a separate word altogether, with a different meaning and usage, and its past tense is “laid.”

Okay, yeah… not so easy. Even Grammar Girl admits that it’s all wonky, and I think it’s completely understandable to (mis-)use the words in the way I hear them around me all the time – you know, lay out, lay down, etc. (I also feel this benevolent way sometimes but not always about the pronunciation of “sherbet”).

Like a lot of other weird English language things, I guess you just have to memorize the rules of you want to use the terms the correct way, which is of course not always required. “Lay” is a present-tense form of a transitive verb that has to have a direct object: lay the dress down, lay the patient on the table, lay your cards on the table. “Lay” is also the past tense of the intransitive verb of “lie,” which does not have to have a direct object: I lay in bed all day with the flu last week, he lay the roses on my doorstep.

I don’t think a lot of people will notice if you mix up these terms in informal speech, but I will advocate for you to use them correctly in writing and the workplace. Also, I’m not going to address the conjugation of this kind of lay – you’re on your own there.

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