Mr. Grammar Man: Clarifying The Proper Uses of Lay Versus Lie

In grammar, few issues present more problems for more people than when to use lay versus when to use lie.

Let’s spend a few minutes attempting to clarify the rules of use for each.

The birth of Mr. Grammar Man

The impetus for finally taking up this issue here at Primility (where we occasionally dabble in grammar tips because, frankly, I just love to) was the following post left on my Facebook wall a few minutes ago:

Dear Mr. Grammar-Man: I’m so confused. Could you please provide a brief expository on the proper uses of “lay” versus “lie”. When I’m tired, should I “lay down” or “lie down”? Does the proof “lay” in the pudding or “lie” in the pudding? There has got to be a rule of thumb for this conundrum, and I am sure that you know where that rule lays…lies..whatever. Thank you.

First off Carol, thank you for the new nickname. Mr. Grammar Man has a nice ring to it, and I believe we will start calling the occasional grammar columns here at Primility exactly that.

(Quick aside: In a recent intro email I sent to a lovely young lady on who claimed to appreciate strong grammar skills, I identified my middle name as Grammar. Yes, I am sometimes that big of a dork/tool/nerd. BUT…I got the date and she then referred to me as “Jerod Grammar Morris” on our first date. It was awesome.)

Now onto the grammar topic at hand: lay versus lie.

Lay versus Lie

First, the easy part: If you tell an untruth it is a lie, not a lay; and if you are in the process of telling an untruth you are lying and not laying.

Sweet! See how easy that was?

But of course it gets far more complicated.

Now I’m not going to lie to you. I couldn’t just lay here and type this out without reviewing the notes of a few experts to confirm my own thoughts.

So let’s venture over to see what my future wife, Grammar Girl, has to say about the trickier aspects of the lay versus lie issue.

Important Point #1: In the present tense, lay requires a direct object; lie does not.

Thus, while you lie down on your bed, you lay the remote control on the nightstand.

So Carol, when you are tired, you lie down.

And as Grammar Girl explains, don’t look to Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan for help on this issue. Lay Down Sally and Lay Lady Lay both are grammatically incorrect.

Important Point #2: In the past tense, things get CRAZY

How crazy? Even the great Grammar Girl could not come up with any kind of mnemonic device or other fun technique to easily remember the rules.

One tricky issue is that lay is the past tense of lie.

Oh boy.

Let’s revisit our examples from above.

  • Today you lie down on your bed. Last night, you lay down on your bed.
  • Today, tired Carol will lie down. Yesterday, tired Carol lay down.

How about the past tense of lay? That is laid and used as follows:

  • Before she lay down to sleep, she laid the remote control on the nightstand.
  • He’d laid the book down on the table.

And then things get even more crazy!

There are past participles as well. Luckily, the past participle of lay is laid, so not much changes there. However, the past participle of lie is lain, which is used as follows:

  • Apparently tired, Carol has lain on her bed for much of the day.
  • He has lain in the hammock for the better part of three hours.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this grammar talk has made me tired. So I am going to lay my mouse on the table and go lie down on the floor.

But wait! We’re not done! I didn’t answer all of Carol’s question.

What to do about pudding?

So, does the truth lay in the pudding or does it lie in the pudding?

Is there, as Carol hopes, a rule of thumb for this conundrum?

It seems to me that it depends on the tense.

If you are referring to some truth being presently in some pudding, that truth would lie in the pudding.

However, if you are discussing the past, and referring to some truth that was in some past pudding, then that truth would lay in the pudding or would have lain in the pudding, depending on usage.

Clear as mud right!?

That is why lie versus lay is so tricky, and why even the great Grammar Girl herself says:

“Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember these right away. Practice will help, and truthfully, I still have to look them up every time I use them. It’s just important to know what you know, and what you don’t know, and to go to the trouble to look it up and get it right because these are hard-and-fast rules.”

Fortunately, Grammar Girl is awesome and has made the chapter of her book that includes these rules available for free download. So click here to keep a quick reference guide handy.


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