The lie of the lay or the lay of the lie

This is one I’ve avoided because I’ve found it a difficult one, but The Cambridge Guide for English Usage – a trusted friend of mine when editing – has shed some light on this nebulous and hazardous pairing of words. Of course, I speak of ‘lie‘ and ‘lay‘ and how to work out what goes where and when.

Okay, first there is lie to tell an untruth, with past tense and past participle both spelt as ‘lied‘.

That’s easy enough so far, but then we meet lie to be in a horizontal position, with past tense ‘lay‘ and past participle ‘lain‘.

And then it gets tricky. We have the present tense word lay, which is spelt the same as the past tense of the latter lie. This word means “put, place, set down” with past tense and past participle ‘laid‘.

The essential difference pointed out in the guide for ‘lie‘ (2) and ‘lay‘ is that lay takes an object, i.e. you “lay something”. Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive and doesn’t take an object.

Clear as mud? It makes my stomach squirm too. To explain a little on transitive (verb with an object)  and intransitive (without object), consider the following:

They flew me to Singapore. (transitive) or The birds flew away. (intransitive) Or using lie and lay; We lay the groundwork. (transitive for lay present tense) and He lie on the ground sleeping.


Chicken (Photo credit: Ward.)