This part I understand clearly:

present past    past participle
lie     lay     lain    
lay     laid    laid

I already understand that and so am not asking how to conjugate these two different verbs: I do already know how to conjugate both of them. Rather, I just don’t know how to remember how to conjugate them so that this sticks in my brain.

Both Professor Malcolm Gibson's Wonderful World of Words and Grammar Girl offer mnemonics for the present tense — so I again stress that I am not asking about that! However, they offer nothing for the past tenses. Grammar Girl even confesses:

I tried and tried to come up with a mnemonic for this, but I couldn’t do it. [. . .] Practice will help, and truthfully, I still have to look them up every time I use them.

How can I come to grips with this confusing conjugation, in order to intuit or assimilate it as far as possible, and to help me remember?


I was inspired to ask this by Kosmonaut’s laconic remark:

Most people don’t even know the correct paradigm for conjugating these verbs [read: lie and lay].

Is there such a “paradigm”?

  • 2
    To lie belongs to a group of verbs whose past tense forms a causative present tense. In other words, to lay means to cause to lie, just as to fell means to cause to fall. There are also some less obvious ones, altered by the course of time, such as to set meaning to cause to sit.
    – Anonym
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 4:15
  • 1
    I heed the Etymological Fallacy ?? Whazat? Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 5:06
  • 1
    Minimizing word number can obfuscate. Also, the formatting needs help.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 15:12
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    Still, @Mari-LouA, using that song as mnemonic would steer one dead wrong on the transitive/intransitive distinction between lay and lie, and also it contributes nothing to the requested mnemonic for past tenses. I remember one song on an old folk album with the line "they laid Jesus Christ in his grave," but that may well be too obscure to have any mnemonic value for most people. Commented May 14, 2015 at 17:34
  • 1
    If you play it, it is played; if you lay it, it is laid. But if you lie, it is plain, once you've done so, you have lain.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 4:16

2 Answers 2


Mnemonic: “Use a d when there is a direct object”

The paradigm is the fixed-format part which you say you are perfectly clear on already:

present tense past tense past participle
lie lay lain
lay laid laid

You say you know that and that you are not asking about that. Fine: that solves the paradigm question, since you already know it.

As for actually remembering which is which, which I presume to be your real question, you need an aide-mémoire. Now, it is easier to construct a mnemonic for past participles than for simple pasts, but this will suffice because it leads to the right answer for both:

  • Use the n in recline to match up with the same letter in lain.
  • Use the d in direct object to match up with the same letter in laid.
    NB: This one also works for the past tense.

Therefore, the key concept for the memory-aid is that direct object begins with the letter d, and so too do the past and past participle of to lay both end with that same letter.

Here’s your distilled memory-aid:

  1. If there is a direct object, use a d in the past and past participle — so lay, laid, laid.

  2. If there is no direct object, don’t use a d in the past or past participle — so lie, lay, lain.

To distill it even further, your mnemonic for remembering the paradigm is therefore “d for direct object”.

As far as what is meant is concerned, no matter which verb is called (or shanghaied) into service, the transitive use with a direct object always means to place something down while the intransitive one without an object always means to rest, recline, remain.

In other words, while you can lay things, things themselves simply lie there and do nothing.

To illustrate with a more Latinate example of combined forms used as participial adjectives that you might better connect with, underlying means subjacent (so resting beneath) while overlaid means superimposed (so placed on top of something else).

  • Thank you. Please don't mind the rollback; I want to generalise the question title; I still wish to make sense of these confusing conjugations if possible, and not only succumb to a mnemonic.
    – user50720
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 14:36

I don't know whether this will help you but for Germans the English forms are not so difficult. Compare:

E lie ------lay --- lain

G liegen lag gelegen (irregular verb type)

E lay ----laid --laid

G legen legte gelegt (regular verb type)

If it doesn't help you have to invent your own aid for remembering these forms.

Another memory aid.

1 lay was a regular verb: lay layed layed.

In the middle of a word y becomes i, so you get lay laied layed. Drop e of ed as this e is no great use.

2 Now if this memory aid helps and you know that the second verb is lie you have to remember that the second form is like the first form of verb 1. So you get

lie lay

As this verb was irregular the third form has -en. You get layen. Change y into i and drop e as in the forms of verb 1. This way you get

lie lay lain

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    It's too convoluted, and recommending someone whose native language isn't German to use the first method is not the easiest solution. (You need to place key words in italics, to help the reader)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 8:17
  • @Mari-LouA You’re absolutely right! My suggestion is in order to improve the reception of his answers here, for his next dozen postings to **English Language & Usage* this poster should endeavour never to mention the German language nor use any German words in those answers.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 15:15
  • @Mari-LouA That’s why I said for the next dozen postings. Then he is allowed to revert to his old Teutonic self. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 15:34
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    Oops, my bad, twelve sounds like a reasonable number...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 15:36
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    In German, liegen used to be ambiguous, as lie is in English. But a dialectal form lügen was substituted for the 'falsehood' sense of liegen, and now it's unambiguous in modern German. And of course, the full conjugation available in German makes the intransitive and the transitive causative forms immediately recognizable. In English the distinction is not apparent. Here's a diagram showing why there's a problem. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 18:26

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