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How do I know when to use lay and when to use lie, and what are the different forms of each verb? I'm always getting them confused.

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Why does it matter if we should not buy into the prescriptive nonsense? Everyone knows what you will mean if you say to your dog, "lay down". (Your dog certainly will know) –  Tim Sep 23 '10 at 17:11
For further reading: english.stackexchange.com/questions/21773/… –  gbutters Jun 3 '11 at 12:27
Migrated to englishfordogs.stackexchange.com –  sam Jan 23 at 16:52
@Tim But if you say your pet pea-hen is 'laying on the floor', how will you be understood? –  WS2 Feb 21 at 17:37
WS2, that's a good point. It seems that Americans use the word lay when British people would use the word lie. –  Tristan r Feb 21 at 18:24
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3 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted

The verb lay is transitive.

You lay something on the table.

The verb lie is intransitive.

You lie on the table when you are operated upon.

The confusion comes because the past tense of lie is lay:

He lay on the table for two hours before he was operated upon.

Few native speakers get this right. Most people would say, "He laid on the table for two hours." Bill Clinton constantly made this mistake in speeches.

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what about "lied", "laid", and "lain"? –  nohat Aug 5 '10 at 22:35
it's lie/lay/has lain and lay/laid/has laid, so (1) "lied" is not part of this issue, it is the past tense of "to lie" as in to tell a fib as in "he lied to me yesterday" and (2) he "he laid the plate on the table yesterday", and (3) "he has lain on the table for three hours" –  Edward Tanguay Aug 5 '10 at 22:38
Bill Clinton made a lot of mistakes when it came to "lie" if I recall. =) –  JohnFx Aug 20 '10 at 15:44
Maybe a few with laid, too, but that is a debatable issue. –  Unreason Aug 15 '11 at 12:18
'Lay' is also used intransitively. 'My hens have started to lay'. –  WS2 Feb 21 at 17:40
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Historically, "lay" is a causitive verb formed from "lie", by a process which is now obsolete in English, but has left some other examples: "rise/raise" and "fall/fell".

In the case of "lie", probably because both words are common and the past of "lie" happens to be the same as the present of "lay", they have become generally confused, and for many people they are no longer distinct.

I don't know why the same has not happened to "fall" and "fell", but it may be simply because the verb "fell" is not very common, being used only of trees and enemies.

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i didnt DV this, but because the FYI is interesting, could you clarify it with details and remove the self-discussion so it is more informative? –  mfg Aug 20 '10 at 13:10
I would, but I'm not sure what you're asking me to do. –  Colin Fine Aug 20 '10 at 13:58
+1 because the last sentence made me giggle (and is also true). –  TRiG Oct 14 '10 at 21:54
+1 for history :) –  sam Jan 22 at 18:16
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The notion that most native speakers are making a mistake about how to use language is ludicrous in the extreme. To paraphrase the linguist Dwight Bolinger, the only possible way that language can be made and defined is by how native speakers, in the broadest sense, use it.

To suggest that the majority are making a mistake completely rules out the idea that languages can change. As we all know, languages do change, so that makes the other notion fatuous.

In this case, it isn't an issue of language change. It's simply another bad prescription; actually, using 'bad' is redundant as a prescription is always bad.

[Usage discussion of lay from Merriam-Webster:]

lay has been used intransitively in the sense of “lie” since the 14th century. The practice was unremarked until around 1770; attempts to correct it have been a fixture of schoolbooks ever since. Generations of teachers and critics have succeeded in taming most literary and learned writing, but intransitive lay persists in familiar speech and is a bit more common in general prose than one might suspect. Much of the problem lies in the confusing similarity of the principal parts of the two words. Another influence may be a folk belief that lie is for people and lay is for things. Some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do so slowly: many people have invested effort in learning to keep lie and lay distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.

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I strongly disagree with your first paragraph. This may well be the only feasible position for the situation and politics of English, but don't impose your ideology on other languages. –  ShreevatsaR Nov 10 '10 at 5:00
Many polities have attempted to rule on what is and is not "correct" in various languages. They have sometimes had some limited success, where they have been able to control what people write (and very occasionally, what people say); but in a larger sense they have all failed, because of the universal truth of what Dan said. (This is not to say that standard versions of languages have not been created; but these do not change the broad sense of how native speakers use the language, indeed they generally introduce diglossia among many speakers. –  Colin Fine Jan 7 '11 at 16:10
I don't think it's fair to say that "prescription is always bad". It's true that there is a lot of terrible prescription out there, but for instance it is totally correct to tell native learners of English (or indeed children) to say "He went" rather than "He goed" - or even to advise someone writing a CV to avoid use of "ain't". That is because (1) it is consistent with standard native speaker usage, and (2) it is most likely to help them achieve their aims. Prescriptivism *is bad when it is detached from historical/present usage, or claims an authority over and above native speaker usage. –  psmears Apr 25 '11 at 22:31
@psmears: but nobody ever does tell native speakers to say "he went" rather than "he goed", because nobody ever has to, because that is descriptively part of present-day English, and prescription doesn't enter into it. [Slight correction: people occasionally do say that to very young children that haven't yet learnt the irregular form, but it has been demonstrated that it is irrelevant whether they do or not: children will learn the exception when they are ready to learn it, and not before. ] –  Colin Fine May 31 '11 at 11:18
@Colin: There is typo in my comment - the first "native" should be "non-native", after which it makes a lot more sense! And regardless of how effective it may be, there's nothing linguistically wrong about telling children to say "went" rather than "goed", because (as you say) that is unarguably what the language descriptively is. Whereas telling people not to end sentences with prepositions (for example) flies in the face of hundreds of years of competent native speaker use, and serves only to make perfectly confident speakers doubt their own competence. –  psmears May 31 '11 at 11:56
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