Laid is a Word You Should Use

In the process of slowly writing blogs about my recent travels, I’m going to just stick a quick post in here on a completely different topic. Most blog writers are interested in being good writers, so I know you won’t be mad at me if I point out a grammatical error that I’ve only started seeing recently. If you make this error, know that you are in good company with Tiina Nunnally, acclaimed translator of Kristin Lavransdatter. I was surprised to see that she was also confused (several times, so I know it wasn’t a typo) on
Lie and Lay.
There are two verbs, to lie and to lay.

Lie is what you do on a bed, or a beach, to rest, or with your lover. Or what anything can do, remaining in a place. (It’s also when you tell an untruth, but that doesn’t get confused, as far as I know, so I’m not dealing with it now.)

The verb has present and past tenses, of course:

Present tense: I lie on the beach, you lie, he lies, they lie. Lie down, Fido! He was lying there asleep for hours.

Past tense: I lay on the bed yesterday, you lay on the bed yesterday, he lay on the bed, etc.

Past perfect: I have lain on the bed every night, etc.

This is called an intransitive verb, which fact might help someone to understand the difference between it and to lay. That means that there is no action transferred to an object. You don’t lie something, you just lie, period.

Lay is a transitive verb, meaning you do it to something. You might lay the napkin on your lap, or the platter on the table.

Present tense: I lay my head on the pillow, The hen lays an egg, Now I lay me down to sleep.

Past tense: I laid my head on the pillow last night, and my mother laid a quilt over me. The hen laid an egg.

Past perfect: I have laid a blanket on the baby every naptime.

The slang about getting laid, etc. is an irregular usage, and I wonder if it may be the reason people avoid the word laid? This is the new error I am noticing, as in Kristin Lavransdatter, when the translator wrote something like, “He lay his trousers on the bed.” Ouch. You can see that there is never a case when that would be correct.

The problem many people have had for ages is saying lay when they should say lie, as in, “Lay down, Fido!” Ouch. That has possibly become more common than the correct usage, I’m afraid. Oddly, it’s the very people who would never make that mistake who are avoiding laid, which can’t be avoided without making me say Ouch.

The only reason I know these things is because as a child I had to memorize verb tenses. Maybe that tradition was fading out soon after, but for any of you who were shortchanged in school, you could revive the tradition to help yourself. Do it like this:

In a sing-song kind of way, if you like, for To Lie, say:
I lie, you lie, he lies, they lie;
I lay, you lay, he lay, they lay;
I have lain, you have lain, he has lain, they have lain.
Or just the short version : “Lie, lay, lain”

And for To Lay, you could just remind yourself: “Lay, laid, laid.”

If you are still confused, you see how others explain it here or here.

Laid is really a fine word. Don’t neglect it!

13 thoughts on “Laid is a Word You Should Use

  1. Thank you, G-J!! These are probably the most abused verbs in the English language. I've tried to clarify their usage for hundreds of students over the years, but as soon as they are out the classroom door, they immediately revert to the usual. *sigh* Perhaps we are watching a part of the language in flux?

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  2. You have laid grammatical confusion to rest, now I must go and lie upon my bed where the cat has lain all day.
    If I don't lay myself down soon and spend the whole night long lying in bed, I'll be “laid up” tomorrow.

    It's Bob Dylan's fault…”Lay lady Lay lady upon my…” The song wouldn;t have sung well grammatically… Lie lady lie…

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    1. You are right, J, and so much of our usage is learned through folk music and all music, isn’t it? The incorrect usage is slowly but surely becoming accepted if not standard. At some point, which maybe we have passed ? I suppose I won’t be able to call it incorrect. That’s the way with language which I guess you could call Folk Prose, as it’s what The Folk speak…

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  3. I LIKE this post! I have always liked grammatical rules and try very hard to obey them. I hope you may lay some more rules on us!

    Jody (who laid her book down to go blog reading)

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  4. I'm guilty of not knowing the difference between lie and lay. I know I was quizzed on it at least twice during my school years, but honestly it is so confusing to me that I just give up and use them incorrectly.

    I'm sure that says a lot more about me as a lazy writer than about the education system. I have a college degree in ENGLISH. Kinda sad, right?

    At any rate, I have bookmarked this post because it is THE BEST EXPLANATION I've ever seen on the two, oft-confused verbs.

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  5. I just noticed that I made a typo in the suggested chant that should, and now does read, “lie, lay, lain.” Now I'm hoping the confusing instructions didn't go *very* far….I corrected it, a little late!

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  6. Another boo-boo I collected a while back:

    “The Gospels go on to recount how Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and how the people there lay down their cloaks in front of him, and also lay down small branches of trees.” Wikipedia on Palm Sunday

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    1. Here is another misplaced effort to avoid using “laid”:

      The Theotokos is certainly placed above all men, and as the embodiment of the Church, she represents the one for whom Christ lay down His life

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