Wrestling with grammar: Using ‘lie’ and ‘lay’

Published 12:15 am Sunday, June 12, 2016


By Bill Ward

Recently, I received a letter from a friend, Salisbury attorney, and former Superior Court Judge, John Holshouser. John commented on my last column, and he had some comments of his own concerning the use, or misuse, of the English language:

“Thank you for reminding us of the need to speak and write the English language with greater care and concern for the fundamental foundations of our heritage.

“I am continuously stunned by talk show hosts, news anchors and reporters who brutalize their presentations with a cavalier disregard for meaning and definition of their words, resulting in, at best, poor communication, which they are charged with the responsibility of upholding.”

He goes on to say that he is “not certain whether present day English classes teach the diagramming of sentences … always essential to the understanding of sentence structure, [and] parts of speech.”

Judge Holshouser also conveyed this thought: “I believe that 90 percent of Americans use the words ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ interchangeably, and few seem to know or care.”

I worked with a doctor long years ago who, upon hearing a technician instructing a patient to “lay” down on an examination table, responded: “Chickens lay; people lie (sometimes in more ways than one).” So, from the Chicago Manual of Style: “Lay and lie are two of the most misused verbs in English, or maybe not misused as much as they are confusing.”

“They are confusing, perhaps, because both use ‘lay’ as one of the verb forms. Confusing, also, because ‘lie’ has a meaning other than the one pointed out here. (The regular verb to lie — means to tell an untruth.)” I am staying away from the technical comments on grammar, here, as much as possible.

When do you use lie and when do you use lay?

Lie means repose or to recline; to lie back. Present tense: I “lie” down. (You could say, I “lie” on my bed.)  I need to be “lying” down.   She “lies” down.   I want to “lie” down.  “Lie” down before you fall down.

Past tense:  Yesterday, I “lay” down.

Future:  Tomorrow, I will “lie” down.

Perfect:  I have “lain” down in that bed.   I had “lain” down in the past.   I will have “lain” down for 20 hours straight.

“Lay” means to put or place.

Lay is transitive — it requires an object. This means that someone or something puts or places something else somewhere.

Present tense:  I “lay” the paper on the desk.  I’m “laying” the paper on the desk. She “lays” the paper on the desk.

Past tense:  Yesterday I “laid” the paper on the desk.

Future:   Tomorrow I will “lay” the paper on the desk.

Perfect:  I have “laid” the paper on the desk.  I had “laid” the paper on the desk.  I will have “laid” the paper on the desk.

People lie (tell something not true) and when they do, they are “lying,” not laying.


Laid is never used for lie.  I laid down (or I had laid down) for a nap is wrong.

I would add my own thought to this. Why do so many students not only read far below grade level, but many students graduate from high school and college unable to read at all?

And finally, in a recent column, I made an error that a few people caught and contacted me about. I have no excuse for it. I was working too fast, and even though two other people reviewed the column, we all missed it. That’s why peer-editing should work so well. I’ll show you my work, if you’ll show me yours. Have someone who reads and writes on an equal level go through your paper and make necessary corrections, or suggest some rewriting, if needed.

My best editor is my wife, Celeste. I usually adhere to about 90 percent of her suggestions. If it involves fundamental grammar corrections, make that 100 percent. Either correct the grammatical error, or recast the sentence, and rewrite around it. No serious writer can be chastised any worse for making a mistake than he or she will chastise themselves. Be your own worse critic.

Many years ago, the famous rocket scientist — some call him the father of modern rocketry — the late Wernher von Braun, published a book about the various stages of American rocket development. In the heat of scrambling to meet a production deadline, the wrong photos were used where Atlas rockets should have been. An 11-year-old boy, who was interested in space travel, bought a copy of the book and caught the error. He wrote von Braun a letter, calling it to his attention. In reply, he received a very nice letter from the famous scientist and an autographed copy of the reprinted book.

Bill Ward is an MIT-trained technical writer-editor who has written a 400-page manuscript on the subject. He has taught technical writing and editing for adult professionals at Queens University in Charlotte. Contact him at wardwriters@carolina.rr.com .