Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lay Versus Lie

This morning as I was lying in bed and the clouds were laying snow on the ground, I was thinking about the next topic on which to post.  The northeast lies buried in snow and it's so cold that chickens will lay ice cubes instead of eggs today.

I thought, why not write a quick review of "lay" versus "lie"?

Okay, it's definition time.

transitive verb - a verb which transfers its action to an object (see the post on subjects and objects if you need a refresher).  In short, a verb that is transitive requires an object.

intransitive verb - a verb which does not take an object.  Think of an intransitive verb as a "stand alone" verb.

Let's look at some examples:

I have (transitive verb) a hammer (object).
You cried (intransitive verb).

If you think about more examples, you will quickly find that there are many verbs which take two objects (a direct object and an indirect object) and some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive.  We'll cover these situations another time.  Right now I want to focus on two specific verbs: lay and lie.

Here's the most important thing to remember about "lay".  Lay is a transitive verb.  Let's say it again just to make sure it sticks in our memory.  Lay is a transitive verb.  And a transitive verb takes an object.  So, lay always takes an object.

"Lie" is an intransitive verb.  Lie does not take an object.  Most of the time when you are saying "lay", you probably mean to say "lie".

Some examples:

The chicken lays an egg.
I was lying down.  (Note that "down" is NOT an object!!)

The second most important thing to remember is that "down" is not an object.  It is a preposition.  If the verb is followed by a preposition (on, in, down, ...), you probably want to use "lie".

Why do so many people get confused about this?  There are probably a few culprits. 

The first is that old prayer that children are taught, "now I lay me down to sleep."  Here, lay is used correctly as transitive verb with "me" as its object.  Normally we don't talk like that (using lay as a reflexive verb), but somehow "lay" became associated in our minds as the correct verb to use.

The second reason for confusion might be that the past tense of "lie" is "lay".  So, right now I lie on the bed. (Notice the preposition following the verb?)  But, earlier today I lay on the bed.  This definitely contributes to confusion between "lay" and "lie".

Try to remember the main points stressed above and you won't lay an egg next time you lie down.

1 comment:

Heather Pagano said...

The post on lay vs. lie was useful for every day speech, and I found the theories on the source of the confusion interesting. Would you consider doing a similar post on effect vs. affect?

My gut instinct says that effect should mean to cause to happen (ie., cause and effect), while affect is something similar to an affectation. I would also guess that the source of the confusion is sloppy pronunciation of the e in effect. However, I haven't researched any of this, and I'd love to read your take on effect vs. affect.