Last week I marked a batch of stories from my college students. I marked so many lie/lay/lain – lay/laid errors that I got confused myself. I ended up “correcting” at least one lie/lay problem issue that turned out to be correct already. So I figured we could all use a refresher on this perennial trouble spot.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Let’s start with the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs. A verb is transitive if it can take a direct object. Eat is a transitive verb because it takes a direct object, as in the sentence “Clarence eats an egg every morning” (the direct object is egg). Sleep is an intransitive verb because it doesn’t take a direct object. You can say “I slept this afternoon,” but not “I slept a nap this afternoon.” Note that a transitive verb doesn’t always take a direct object. If you say “I still haven’t eaten,” there’s no direct object, but have eaten is still a transitive verb.

On the other hand, there are verbs that have both a transitive and an intransitive usage. Fly is intransitive in most cases, as in “The bird flies” or “Tomorrow I will fly to Cleveland.” But sometimes fly does take a direct object and is therefore transitive, as in “Cindy used to fly 747s for Delta Airlines.”

This distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is the distinction between lay (or lay down) and lie (or lie down). Note: I won’t have anything to say about the verb to lie that means “to deceive,” since it never causes any confusion with the verb to lay.

Lay is a transitive verb, as in “Lay your backpack in the corner.” The direct object is backpack. Or consider the old gospel song, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside.” The direct object is sword and shield.

Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive. Lying is something you do, not something you do to something else. So you’d say “I’m going to lie in this bed until I feel like getting up.” You’re not lying somebody or something, you’re just lying. This transitive/intransitive distinction is also why it is proper to say “Lay the backpack in the corner,” but not “The backpack is laying in the corner.” When you lay a backpack in a corner, you are doing something to the backpack. But when the backpack is in the corner, it’s not doing anything to anybody. It’s just lying there—being intransitive, you might say.

One quick note: there are ways to talk about getting in bed that do take a direct object and therefore require the transitive verb lay.

Consider these sentences:

  • I can’t wait to lie in my own bed. (intransitive lie)
  • I can’t wait to lay my tired body in the bed. (direct object body, therefore transitive lay)
  • I can’t wait to lay my head on my pillow. (direct object head, therefore transitive lay)

Four Principal Parts, Regular and Irregular (Strong) Verbs

Once you get the transitive/intransitive things down, it’s not terribly hard to decide whether to use a form of lay or a form of lie. Unfortunately, if you’re using the past tense or one of the perfect tenses of lie or lay, your troubles are just beginning.

We’ll start with this chart of the four principal parts of lay and lie:

If you take a quick look at this chart, it comes as no surprise that people so often get these verbs mixed up. The third principal part (past tense) of lie is exactly the same as the first principal part (present tense) of lay.

Over in the fourth principal part, laid and lain are easily confused. And then there’s the fact that the third and fourth principal parts are identical for lay and different for lie.

It might seem a little random and arbitrary.

A longer look at the chart, however, along with a little history of the English language, will make it seem less random and arbitrary.

Let’s start with what the phrase “principal part” even means. Every English verb has four principal parts, so I could use any verb to illustrate. I will use the irregular verb eat.

The first principal part is the form of the verb as it appears in the infinitive (to eat…remove the to and you’re left with the first principal part, eat).

The first principal part is the form of the present tense in every conjugation except the the person singular, where you add an “s.”

  • I eat.
  • You eat.
  • He/She/It eats.
  • We eat.
  • Y’all eat.
  • They eat.

Also, the first principal part is the form used with will to form the future tense:

  • I will eat.    
  • You will eat.
  • He/She/It will eat.         
  • We will eat.
  • Y’all will eat.
  • They will eat.

The second principal part is just the first principal part with -ing added to the end. It is used to create the progressive tenses. (I was eating. She is eating. They will be eating.) The second principal part is also the present participle (Eating an ice cream cone, I am my best self) and the gerund (My hobby is eating ice cream cones).

The third principal part is the simple past tense: I ate. You ate. He/She/It ate.

The fourth principal part is the form that goes with have/has, will have, or had to form the perfect tenses. I have eaten (present perfect). He has eaten. (present perfect). You had eaten (past perfect). They will have eaten (future perfect).

The fourth principal part is also used with the to be verb to form the passive voice: The ribs I left in the refrigerator were eaten by my roommate. It is also the form of the past participle, as in Eaten alive by mosquitoes, I retreated into the house.

Sorry to be so technical, but bear with me through a little more technicality. For “regular” verbs (sometimes called “weak” verbs by linguists and language historians), you form the third principal part (simple past tense) by adding -d, -ed, or -t to the end of the first principal part. And the fourth principal part is identical to the third. Here are some regular verbs:

This is pretty straightforward stuff. But a lot of English verbs are not regular, and the irregular verbs (often called “strong verbs” for reasons made plain below) are often quite common verbs. Here are a few:

Where did these strange verb forms come from? With very few exceptions, the irregular verbs came from Old English (Anglo Saxon), which usually changed verb tenses by changing vowel sounds in the middle of the verb.

There were several different classes of Old English verbs that changed tenses according to different rules. Some just changed the vowels (swim/swam/swum, sing/sang/sung); many changed vowels and also added a terminal -n for the fourth principal part (strive/strove/striven, draw/drew/drawn, give/gave/given). English verbs aren’t as chaotic and random as they seem; they just follow several different sets of complex rules.

Regular verbs, as we have already seen, follow much simpler rules. Over the centuries, most of the verbs that go back to Old English have begun to follow the “regular” rules. And, with a tiny number of exceptions (catch/caught being the only one I know of), every verb that has entered the language since AD 1066 has been a “regular” verb. (When the verb televise was invented, for instance, nobody tried to conjugate it as televise/televose/televisen.)

Those Old English verbs that have resisted the forces of regularization are sometimes known as “strong” verbs. If you ask me, this designation better reflects their history than the “irregular” designation.

Let us return, then, to lay and lie.

As you can see, lay is a perfectly regular verb. Spelling notwithstanding, the third principal part is just the first principal part with a -d added. And the fourth principal part is the same as the third.

Lie, on the other hand, is a strong verb that follows a pattern similar to that of give/gave/given or bid/bade/bidden: the vowel i becomes the vowel a in the third principal part, and a terminal -n marks the fourth principal part. Unfortunately, the vowel-change makes the third principal part of lie look and sound exactly like the first principal part of lay, causing heartache for all two billion speakers of English who live on this planet. By the time they get to the fourth principal part, most writers and speakers just choose something at random and hope for the best.

So, to recap, to lay is transitive and regular. To lie is intransitive and irregular (except for the to lie that means to deceive, which is intransitive and regular, but you don’t have any trouble with that one anyway).

I don’t know if any of this will help you get it right in the future, but at least you know why things are the way they are.

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