If you struggle with the decision to use lie or lay, you are not alone. I have to give it a moment’s thought before using either one, or I have to go back and self-correct, which sometimes causes my audience to roll their eyes in a “who cares” kind of response. In truth, when you’re speaking, you can get away with a wrong choice, but in writing it’s appropriate to choose wisely.
I’d like to say that it’s easy to know the difference between these two. Whoever set this rule in print was a little bit of a sadist. Lay is the present tense of the word that takes half a column in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to define, but it is also the past tense of lie. Lay ranges in definition from “to put something” to the vulgar sexual reference. Lie also has many definitions, but the one that causes the most fits is “to rest or recline”.
So, here goes my best effort to distinguish the two without relying on technical terms like “transitive/intransitive.” Lay as a verb is used when you talk about putting something somewhere as in “Please lay your ID card on the bar.” In other words it takes a direct object, if you remember your grammar school days. That means that something receives the action of the verb lay. Lie, on the other hand, does not take an object – you don’t lie something. It simply means “to rest or recline” as in “I have to lie down whenever someone talks politics.”
Some confusion is caused by the principal parts of these two verbs.
Present I lay the book on the toilet.
Past I laid the book on the burner.
Past Participle I have laid the book on the roof of my car.
Present Participle I am laying the book on the garage floor.
Present I lie down every day at noon.
Past I lay in bed last night counting sheep.
Past Participle I have lain on straw beds before.
Present Participle I am lying in mud.
Why would anyone decide that lay is the past tense of lie? And who uses lain anymore? Again, people are more forgiving for the spoken word, but the written word requires a little more precision. There are other pairs of words that follow similar rules – one needs a direct object (like raise and set), and the other does not (like rise and sit). So if you can a) master the idea of something receiving the action of the verb (a direct object), and b) remember which verb requires the direct object, then you’re on your way to mastering these verb conundrums.