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by Paula LaRocque on August 26th, 2012

Do you see a grammatical error in the following newspaper passage?

“If nothing else, it lay the groundwork for a family-led public relations campaign to humanize Kenneth Lay.”

That sentence, which appeared in a national newspaper known for careful writing and editing, concerned an interview with Linda Lay, wife of former Enron chief Kenneth Lay.  You probably immediately spotted the problem in “it lay the groundwork”—an unintentionally amusing lie-lay error in a story about a man named Lay.

That sentence shows that the irregular verbs lie and lay can cause even careful writers and editors to lay an egg.  But no need to lie low—the verbs aren’t complicated, despite their frequent misuse.  It helps to remember that TO LIE means to rest or recline, and TO LAY means to place or put something somewhere.  (We’ll ignore the forms of lie that mean to fib—that’s a different word and causes no confusion.)

Here’s a quick and easy rundown:

The verb TO LIE means to rest or recline, and it applies to both animate and inanimate subjects.  (We lie on the bed—or the floor depending on what we did last night—the same way the book lies on the desk.)  LIE conjugates thus:

• This moment I am (or something is) LYING (down, on the table, beneath the tree, etc.).

• Today I LIE (down).

• Yesterday I LAY (down).

• Tomorrow I will have LAIN (down).

Notice that there’s no “laid” in the verb TO LIE (meaning to rest or recline).

The verb “TO LAY” means to place or put something somewhere.  It’s a simple verb that conjugates thus:

• This moment I am LAYING (something down).

• Today I LAY (something down).

• Yesterday I LAID (something down).

• Tomorrow I will have LAID (something down).

Notice that there’s no “layed” in the verb TO LAY—or anywhere else, for that matter.  “Layed” is not a word.  Spell it “laid.”

Also notice that the verb TO LAY has an object (place or put something), while the verb TO LIE does not.

The two verbs share a word, unhappily, which helps muddy the water.  That shared word is lay, and it’s both the past tense of LIE and the present tense of LAY.

So back to that newspaper passage:  The phrasing “it lay the groundwork” should have been “it laid the groundwork.”  It’s a simple past-tense sentence including the verb TO LAY, meaning to place or put.  (If the sentence were in present tense, it would read: “It lays the groundwork.”)

That’s about as complicated as it gets.  But before we lay this matter to rest—or let it lie—let’s consider a few other small hitches in the correct use of lie and lay.

Since there is no laid in the verb to lie, it is always wrong to say we “laid down” when we mean that we rested or reclined or lay down.  One of the reasons this error is so common is that, in speech, a vowel preceding a consonant usually takes on the sound of the consonant.  That means that even when we correctly say “lay down,” it sounds the same as “laid down” because of the silent Y—the sounds merge, and “lay down” becomes “layDown.”  Most blending or elision of sound causes few problems, and can even amuse.  For example, “Did you eat yet?” can sound like “Jeet yet?”  But in the case of “lay down,” the merging of sound can confuse the issue because it happens to mimic a grammatical error.

Another problem is that we can become confused by such structures as “I’m going to lay my weary head on the pillow.”  We might be tempted to use lie because it seems we’re talking about lying down.  But in this sentence’s logic, my head is a direct object—I’m going to place or put it somewhere, same as I would a brick or a block of wood.  (No jokes, please!)

One good thing: Even if we can’t think fast enough to make the right choice in speech, we can make the right choice in writing—because of that incredible luxury of being able to look back at the sentence and edit.

A final note: Don’t trust your computer’s grammar or spell checker to catch lie and lay errors.  Believe me, it hasn’t a clue.  Throughout this column, my grammar checker made insane suggestions—suggestions that would have made the work ungrammatical.  Wonderful as such software is, it’s a machine, and machines can’t handle certain intricacies of language.  That’s one limit of artificial intelligence.  Sometimes we need the real thing.

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[This article originally appeared in Quill magazine in a slightly different form in 2006.]

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