Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lay down Sally! (The difference between laying and lying)

Another word I've heard used incorrectly quite a bit is the word "lay down" or "laying down". People generally mean "lie down" or "lying down", but they evidently don't realise that.

To lie down is a verb that means a person or animal is somehow resting horizontally on a surface, be it a mattress, a sofa, or a bed of straw, or other type of surface.  To lay or to lay down are simply not verbs at all, at least not on their own.

I frequently hear people say things like "I was laying on the sofa for a while", or a really popular one is to tell your dog "Go lay down!" Neither of these are correct.  They should say "I was lying on the sofa for a while" and "Go lie down!"

The reason for this is that lying does not require a direct object, whereas laying does. For example:

I'm going to lie down for a nap.

You should lay the book down on the table first.

In the first sentence, you are describing, using verbs, what you will do.  In the second sentence, "the book" is the direct object--you are actually doing something with an object.

Where it becomes complicated is when you switch to past tense.  The verb "to lie" is an irregular verb and takes on the form "lay" in the past tense.  So you wouldn't say "I lied down for a nap" but "I lay down for a nap".

The past tense of "lay" is "laid". So "I laid the book down on the table before going out".

To add to all the fun, the past participle of "lie" is "lain", so "I had lain down for a nap, but the doorbell broke my slumber".

The past participle of "lay" is the same the past tense, "laid", so "I had laid the book down on the table before I went out, and now I can't find it!"

In my examples, I've used both verbs with the preposition "down", but that is not always required.  Consider,

It was lying around here somewhere (not, it was laying around here somewhere)

or

Lay the rocks over the dirt (not, lie the rocks over the dirt)

These are fun verbs to ponder if you're a grammar geek like me.  I researched this information some time ago because I was curious to know if lain and laid were British and American grammar differences in past participles and past tense, and I learned that I didn't actually realise there was much of a difference between lay and lie, so I was happy I had looked into it.

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