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Can someone tell me which, if any, of the following sentences are correct:

  • When she walked in, he was laying on the bed.
  • When she walked in, he was laid on the bed.
  • When she walked in, he lay on the bed

To me, the first two seem correct, but I am frequently confused as to when it is acceptable to use the progressive tense when referring to past events.

EDIT:

To just clarify the purpose of my question. My intended meaning for this sentence is that "he" was already on the bed when "she" walked in. If none of the above sentences convey this meaning then how is this correctly phrased?

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For the difference between 'to lay' and 'to lie', see english.stackexchange.com/questions/105/… –  Jared Updike Oct 14 '10 at 20:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

These examples are a minefield, because lay and lie have the most confusing similar meanings and even overlapping past tense forms. Many people do not use them in the standard ("correct") way, and don't even know the right way. You don't always use the same verb between lay and lie in your examples, and you don't always use the right one in the right place, so I will try to explain those as well.

Technically speaking, the correct way to form the first sentence is:

When she walked in, he was lying on the bed.

The grammarian standard rule is that lie is used when the actor or subject of the sentence is the one who is lying down (which is what is happening in your sentence).

Now, with this correction in mind, on to the answer: technically all of your sentences are correct, but they all mean a different thing.

You use the past progressive when you want to describe an event in the past that took place during another event in the past. So, in your first sentence, "she walked in" is one event that happened, and "he was lying on the bed" means that the walking-in happened during the lying.

In your second sentence, you are have two simple past tense verbs. This time, "was laid" is a passive construction in the past tense (past tense of "lay", specifically). Since the sentence is passive, it means that someone laid "him" on the bed — he didn't do it himself — so the past tense of lay (rather than the past tense of lie) is the correct verb to use. So, this sentence means that at the moment she walked in, someone or something laid him on the bed.

In your third sentence, you again have two past tense verbs. The verb lay is the simple past form of lie, so you are saying that the walking-in and the lying happened at the same moment in the past.

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That first sentence might not be wrong, if he was producing an egg at the moment she entered the room. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 15 '10 at 15:13
    
Thanks, although the meaning I was trying to convey was none of these. Please see my edit. –  pm_2 Oct 19 '10 at 16:09
    
@pm_2: "When she walked in, he was lying on the bed." This one does convey the meaning you want. Walking-in happened during lying = he was lying on the bed before walking-in and after. –  Kosmonaut Oct 19 '10 at 19:02

All three are correct, but they have different meanings.

In the first case, "he" was already on the bed, laying, at the time that "she" walked into the room.

In the second case, "he" was being laid (presumably by a third party, assuming that "he" was incapacitated in some fashion) on top of the bed at the time that "she" walked into the room.

In the third case, simultaneous actions occurred: "she" entered the room, and "he" lay (down) on the bed.

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The 1st and 2nd ones are correct, but they mean different things. The 1st means that he was already on the bed when she walked in. The 2nd means that as she was walking in, someone was placing him on the bed. The 3rd one sounds weird to me.

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