Don't Lay When You Can Lie
Ah, May! It's getting warmer out, and Quinn has noticed. One bright day, she gathers up her blanket and suntan lotion and says to her friend Peter,
"I'm going to lay out."
So Peter responds,
"What are you going to lay out?"
And the conversation continues,
"I'm not laying anything out, I'm going to go lay out."
"Yeah, but you are going to go lay out what?"
The confusion goes on for some time until it resembles the classic Abbot and Costello routine: Who's on First?
Finally, Peter explains Quinn's mistake. Lay is a transitive verb, requiring an object. One cannot simply lay out. One must be laying something out! Quinn should have said,
"I'm going to lie out."
or, less ideally,
"I'm going to lay myself out."
Let us examine the confusion in more detail.
A transitive verb is a verb that uses both a subject and an object. It relies on the object to give us information that is vital to the function of the verb.
She gave him a slap.
If we look at the Wrong part of the example, "She gave," we can see that the statement doesn't make sense. We need to know what she gave and/or whom she gave it to.
Lay is also a transitive verb. We can't say, "I'm going to lay." We need to know what it is we are laying.
Betsy went to lay.
Betsy went to lay her son to sleep.
In the Right part of the example above, "Betsy" is the subject and "son" is the object required for the verb lay.
An intransitive verb is a verb that requires only a subject to perform the action.
Fainted is an intransitive verb. It doesn't require another noun for clarification. We know what fainted in the above example. Additionally,
He fainted on his way to the bathroom,
still treats fainted as an intransitive verb. "On his way to bathroom," tells us where he was when he fainted, but it is a prepositional phrase and the verb does not rely on the information contained within. If we tell someone, "he fainted," it is enough to convey the basic idea.
Lie is also an intransitive verb. We can use lie without an object.
I'm going to lie down.
Confusion with Tense?
It is possible that a great deal of the confusion over the difference between lie and lay stems from a misunderstanding of the various tenses. I will list the present and past tenses of the two below.
Lay – Present Tense
Laid – Past Tense
Lie – Present Tense
Lay – Past Tense
You read that correctly. The past tense for lie is lay! And for lay, it's laid. Layed is not a word, a point that deserves special emphasis:
Layed: "I'm not a word."
It's possible that people see lay as a form of lie and just think that lay is usually correct, missing the distinctions. So let's examine some examples using the past tense.
Last Thursday, she lay out a picnic blanket.
Last Thursday, she laid out a picnic blanket.
Two weeks ago, I lie in bed with the flu.
Two weeks ago, I lay in bed with the flu.
Now let's try dealing with both transitive/intransitive confusion and past/present tense confusion all at once. See if you can determine which of the sentences below are correct, which are wrong, and what the corrections are to the wrong ones. The answers will be listed at the end.
- The book lays on the table.
- Susan laid on the beach yesterday.
- I used to sleep by laying on my stomach.
- I'll lie the pot on the drying rack.
Hopefully you were able to spot the flaws and correct them. If not, don't be discouraged, even knowing there's a difference between lie and lay is a good start. But if all goes well, next time you hear someone say that they are going to "lay out in the sun," you can make sure to tell him or her that he or she shouldn't be putting anything into the giant flaming ball of gas at the center of our solar system. After all, correct grammar saves lives!
1. Wrong, should be,
The book lies on the table.
2. Wrong, should be,
Susan lay on the beach yesterday.
2. Wrong, should be,
I'll lay the pot on the drying rack.