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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Layperson’s Guide to Lie and Lay
by Carol Novack

Many writers (and other people) use "lay" instead of "lie." I promised one such confused writer that I'd post this guide on my blog.

To Lie

Start by declining the verb to lie, as in to recline (Lie =Recline). e.g., Last summer at Marienbad, Henri and I lay on chaise lounges.

Present tense: I lie, you lie, s/he lies, we lie, they lie/ I am lying, you are lying, s/he is lying, etc. (on pins and needles.)

Past tense: I lay, you lay, s/he lay, we lay, they lay (in state.)

Imperfect: I was lying, you were lying, s/he was lying, we were lying, they were lying (in a room full of snails.)

Perfect: I had lain, you had lain, etc. (so long I couldn't get up. Oy.)

To Lay

Now decline the verb to lay, as in to place or set (Lay = Place). e.g., I lay the placemat on the table. Notice that lay is always followed by a noun, i.e., a direct object.

Present: I lay, you lay, s/he lays, we lay, they lay/ I am laying, you are laying, etc. (the fork atop the serviette.)

Past: I laid, you laid, etc. (an egg on his bald pate.)

Imperfect: I was laying, you were laying, he was laying, etc. (daffodils on her grave.)

Perfect: I had laid, you had laid, etc. (my keys on my left breast.)

You should ask yourself: Am I talking/writing about lying as in reclining or laying as in placing? Keep the definitions in mind every time you’re tempted to use the word lay. Lay as in place doesn’t really come up in writing and conversations nearly as much as lie as in recline.

I am laying on the bed is obviously wrong. Substitute placing for laying and you’ll see why. I am placing on the bed is ridiculous, unless you’re placing first in a sex marathon.

Also, lie/recline is an intransitive verb, usually followed by a prepositional phrase, while lay/place is a transitive verb which takes a direct object.
And by the way, as to As and Like, from:

Strictly speaking, the word like is a preposition, not a conjunction. It can, therefore, be used to introduce a prepositional phrase ("My brother is tall like my father"), but it should not be used to introduce a clause ("My brother can't play the piano like as he did before the accident" or "It looks like as if basketball is quickly overtaking baseball as America's national sport."). To introduce a clause, it's a good idea to use as, as though, or as if, instead.

Like As I told you earlier, the lecture has been postponed.

It looks like as if it's going to snow this afternoon.

Johnson kept looking out the window like as though he had someone waiting for him.

In formal, academic text, it's a good idea to reserve the use of like for situations in which similarities are being pointed out:

This community college is like a two-year liberal arts college.

However, when you are listing things that have similarities, such as is probably more suitable.

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