Here we go with some more editorial pontification, about another issue that I’ve noticed while editing: the pesky and much-confused issue of “lie” vs. “lay”. I’m not talking about “lie” as in “telling a falsehood” – you know, “He’s lying like a rug.” Though, wait – actually, that latter example, yes, we will be talking about that. But not in the “falsehood” sense.
What this is about is the verb “lie” as in “to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position, as on a bed or the ground; recline”. And then, “lay”, as in “to put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest; set down” (definitions courtesy of dictionary.com).
And there you have the difference in a nutshell: lie and lay are both about flat-on-your-back-ness, but the difference is who is implementing it. “Lie” means “to BE on your back”, “lay” “to PUT on the back”.
To demonstrate: Here’s me, laying Steve down:
And here is Steve, lying down:
So, picture 1, I lay Steve down, picture 2, Steve lies down. “Lay” always has to take an object; there always has to be a “whom?” or “what?” with it. Whom or what do I lay down? My stuffed bear, Steve. And once I lay him down, there he lies (no object) (also not a lot of initiative; he’s a bear, he’s too lazy to move).
You know the little children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”? That one can really throw you off, because you’re talking about yourself here, your own flat-on-your-backness. But note it doesn’t say “Now I lay down…”, but “Now I lay me down…” Whom or what do I lay down? Me, my tired body. And once I lay me down, there I lie. Technically, the poem should say “Now I lie down…”, but that would screw up the metre, so, “lay me” instead of “lie”.
That’s also where “lying like a rug” comes in. If you say someone lies like a rug, that means he’s a really bad liar (I mean, a good liar. He’s really bad because he lies, but good at it. Umm – whatever.). A rug, by definition, lies flat on the ground, it’s the ultimate in passivity. You can’t get more lyingly lying than a rug. The rug lies – not lays.
Laying is something a hen does, with an egg – laying hens lay eggs. Whom or what do they lay? Eggs.
So, a rug lies, a hen lays (eggs). Easy, no?
But here’s the wrench in the works: “lay” is also the past tense of “lie”. So, yesterday, the rug lay on the floor (curse its woolly hide). But the hen, at exactly the same time, laid an egg.
“Lay”, “to put down flat”, is a regular verb; its past tense (and past participle, which you use in the past perfect) is formed by adding -ed, or in this case, -id: lay, laid, had laid. Today I lay Steve down, yesterday I laid him down, the day before I had laid him down.
But lie, the “be on your back” version, is an irregular verb: lie, lay, had lain. So Steve, having never got up when I laid him down, still lies there; just as yesterday, he lay there, and the day before he had lain there.
(The “tell a falsehood” version of “lie” is a regular verb – lie, lied, lied: today I lie, yesterday I lied, the day before I had lied – that’s where the rug simile breaks down, because you can’t say that last week Joe “lied like a rug”.)
So, one more time: “lie” stands on its own, it’s something I do, myself; “lay” needs an object, it’s something I do to another person or thing. The hen lays an egg on the rug that lies on the ground.
Now, before you’re comatose with boredom (as your lying on the floor with your eyes glazed over indicates), I’ll stop laying down grammar laws. But don’t say I never told you nothin’ – that’d be a lie.
Life, the Universe, and Lies, all Lies. Uh, I mean, Lie vs. Lay. Now you know.