Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lay, Lie, Laid

This post was first published here on February 14, 2009.


I am a full time published writer and yet there are still loads of grammar rules that I just do not understand. Living in Botswana is worse still, since sometimes I need to know American grammar rules and sometimes British grammar rules and also which of the other countries I write for falls under which grammar system. I thought, as a way to sort out my grammatically challenged mind, I would do a bit of research and teach you folks hoping that along the way I would solve my own problem. At the very least, my publisher is going to appreciate this.

So today I looked at one of my worst grammar dilemmas - lay, lie, laid. I’ve pulled out my trusty Good English Handbook by Godfrey Howard and ducked over to Grammar Girl’s site and this is what I’ve got.

Let’s start with present tense. The most important question to ask here is - is the word followed by an object? If there is an object following the verb, then you use lay, if not, then it's lie.

Look at the two sentences below and decide which to use - lie or lay:

Stella, _____ that koala bear on the sofa!
Koala bears __________ on the sofa all day.

(We’re going to have an Australian animal theme today as I’m feeling sad about all the furry critters that perished in the bush fires there)

In the first one, we would use lay: Stella, lay that koala bear on the sofa! This is because Stella is laying something, in this case the koala bear. Whereas in the second one, we would use lie: Koala bears lie on the sofa all day. This is because there is no object.

The whole problem stems from the people who made English and their complete lack of sense which can be vividly demonstrated by the past tense of these two words.
The past tense of lay is laid, okay good enough- BUT the past tense of lie is lay! Do they really expect us to remember this? In any case, here are the same sentences put in the past tense:

Stella, you laid those koalas on the sofa yesterday!
Koala bears lay on the sofa yesterday.

And to complete the topic we have the past participle (past tense using had/have).
Let’s have those sentences again!

Stella, you have laid the koalas on the sofa!
Koala bears have lain on the sofa since yesterday.

(Eish! Those koala bears are some lazy fellows! Or maybe they’re tired from escaping those terrible fires, so we should give them a break.)

Hope that helps you. I think I almost have it… maybe.

Lauri Kubuitsile is an award-winning writer living in Botswana. Most recently she’s been writing at her blog, Thoughts from Botswana, about cobras (in the sitting room-yikes!) and Coetzee (who will soon be judging her short story), though she does post on topics beyond the letter C. Her eclectic blog stems from her eclectic writing career which includes short stories, children’s books, science textbooks, detective novellas, television series, radio lessons, and most any other writing job that comes her way.

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  1. I love reading your helpful hints -never been too hot on punctuation, was too busy day dreaming in class! x

  2. I always have trouble with lay,lie,laid. Lots of times I avoid them to be safe. I'm going to have to copy this permalink and refer as needed.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Lauri,

    I recently had to research this very thing for a short story I'm writing. I must say, your expanation is much more clear than what I found in the dictionary.


  4. Thank you! Lie/lay is the hardest thing for me, so I'm going to bookmark this so I can refer to it as needed.

  5. That's a helpful distinction to make. Thanks!

  6. Glad to know we both found the same book very helpful. I have the same trouble too and I'm

    Great blog

  7. I love the little nuances of the English language. I look grammar up on the net frequently. One of my favourite things recently is:

    Stationary with an 'a'= not moving

    Stationery with an 'e'= something you write on!

  8. Glad you all found this helpful. Morgan, I'm just like you, I often try to leave these troublesome words out, but, as I've said, my grammar issues are quite varied and I'd find it hard to write anything if I left them all out.

  9. Those are some tricky ones! Thanks for sharing the explanation.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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