Deadly Wordplay #3: Lie, Lied, Lay, Laid, and Lain

Deadly Wordplay #3: Lie, Lied, Lay, Laid, and Lain

This one’s a biggie. It seems like everyone in the world and their mother get this wrong, and by this, I mean the difference between the three verbs to lie, to lie, and to lay.


First, we have the verb to lie, meaning to tell an untruth. Of the three verbs, this one is the least misused, as most people know how to conjugate it—and why not? It’s very straightforward.

Today, I lie.
You lie.
He lies.
We lie.
They lie.

Yesterday, I lied.
You lied.
He lied.
We lied.
They lied.

The day before that, I had lied.
You had lied.
He had lied.
We had lied.
They had lied.

This verb requires no object noun; it is self-contained. While you might lie to someone, about something, or like something (“You lie like a spy!”), you don’t lie something. You simply lie.

…which (who would have thought?!) makes it very similar to the verb to lie, meaning in this case to recline, or to extend, or to exist, or to remain.

Now this is a verb often incorrectly used.

Like to lie (to tell an untruth), to lie (to recline, et al) requires no object noun. The subject acts alone. However, the action can be modified—to lie down, motionless, in my arms, and between my breasts. In other words, you can specify where or how the subject lies.

Easy enough, right? Well, the hard part is in the conjugation. Observe:

Today, I lie down.
You lie prostrate.
He lies waiting.
We lie defeated.
They lie at the mercy of our whim.

But yesterday, I lay down.
You lay prostrate.
He lay waiting.
We lay defeated.
They lay at the mercy of our whim.

Notice anything different yet? The past tense of to lie (to recline, et al), which is lay, is different from the past tense of to lie (to tell an untruth), which is lied. Anyone who tells you that “she lied down” is lying to you.

Lying! Another form of the two verbs, similarly used. I am lying to you about lying down. You were lying to me about lying prostrate. He had been lying to us about lying in wait. Same, all throughout.

But the simple past tense? If you told an untruth, you lied. If you rested, you lay. You lied to me about working yesterday; the truth is, you lay in bed all day!

…which is not to be confused with the verb to lay, which means to put or set down, or to bring forth, or to press down, or to place, et cetera. This is the point where everything goes haywire.

Unlike the first two verbs, to lay requires an object noun—in other words, to lay is a transitive verb; you have to lay something somewhere.

Right now, I lay my book down.
You lay your head on my shoulder.
He lays his wife in bed.
We lay our arms down in peace.
They lay eggs.

But yesterday, I laid my book down.
You laid your head on my shoulder.
He laid his wife in bed (but good!).
We laid our arms down in peace.
They laid eggs.

Notice the word laid? It’s a really great word, the past tense of to lay, but so many people misuse it. It’s like they can’t get laid or something.

I lay down as I laid my book down. Obviously, I get laid. But if you tell me you “laid down,” you are telling me that you just don’t get laid. The correct way? You lay prostrate as you laid your head on my shoulder. (Boy, what a boring lay you turned out to be.) He lay in wait before he laid his wife in bed. And so on, and so forth.

Now, before I move on to the word lain, let’s see if we’ve managed to sort out lie, lied, lie, lay, lay, and laid. Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

Correct? Or incorrect? And why?

This is also seen in Sophie B. Hawkins’s lyrics for As I Lay Me Down:

As I lay me down to sleep,
This I pray,
That you will hold me dear,
Though I’m far away.
I’ll whisper your name into the sky,
And I will wake up happy.

If you answered “correct,” then good for you. It is correct, and here’s why. The word me in these cases is the object noun, and the verb used is to lay (to set down) in the present tense. I lay me down is just another way of saying I lie down.

OK. How about this one, from Bob Dylan’s Lay, Lady, Lay:

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile.
Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile.
His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean,
And you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen.

Correct? Or incorrect? And why?

The correct answer is “incorrect,” and here’s why: Bob Dylan is a musical genius but a grammatical idiot.

Correct would have been:

Lie, lady, lie, lie across my big brass bed.

Why? Because he’s commanding her to do something in present tense, and he’s asking her to recline, not to set something down or to produce an egg on his big brass bed.

But Bob Dylan went with lay because it rhymes with stay, and has the same long a sound as the word lady. So you see, he’s a musical genius but a grammatical idiot.

But he’s not alone. The Backstreet Boys are idiots, too, as shown in Lay Down Beside Me:

If you lay down, lay down beside me,
You can get on inside me,
And I can get on inside you too.

So is Woody Guthrie in Lay Down Little Doggies:

Lay down, little doggies, lay down.
We’ve both got to sleep on the cold, cold ground.

So, as you can see, the use of the incorrect lay down is ubiquitous. Most people simply don’t realize that’s it’s grammatically wrong, and even if they do, they probably don’t feel comfortable using the grammatically correct way of saying it because it sounds too close to lying, or telling an untruth. The person they’re addressing might get confused!

For instance, if you were Bob Dylan, would you want your lady to misunderstand you and start lying to you about her many other boyfriends instead of lying in bed naked and ready for your loving? “Bob, darling, when you say ‘lie, lady, lie’ to me like that, do you mean lie as in deceive you or lie as in get flat on my back for you?”

Seriously. I think this is why people say “lay beside me” instead of “lie beside me.” We’re all grammatical idiots who think everyone around us is a grammatical idiot. “I want you to recline on the bed with me, not tell me lies, and that’s why I’m telling you to make me some eggs. You know, so you don’t get confused. Do it now. Lay beside me.”

Cluck, cluck!

Remember, lay is either the past tense of to lie (to recline) or the present tense of to lay (to set down), and in the case of the latter, it must have an object noun. It can not mean to recline in an intransitive sense in the present tense.

Same goes for lying and laying. If you find yourself “laying down,” you’d better have an object noun!

Which finally brings us to the word lain. This word is hardly ever used because lie and lay in the present and past tenses are already confusing enough as it is. Bringing in the past perfect tense will only make people’s heads explode.

Lain is the past perfect tense of to lie (to recline). If I lie down now and lay down yesterday, then I very likely had lain down the day before.

But if I lay me down now and laid me down yesterday, then I very likely had laid me down the day before.

Now see if you can sort all that out.

I’m not lying. If I hadn’t laid this all out for you, all the while laying aside my other hobbies to write this silly thing, this subject would lie untouched. Can you imagine a world where errors lay uncorrected?


But that’s all right. The world is full of grammatical idiots anyway. According to Merriam-Webster:

Lay has been used intransitively in the sense of “lie” since the 14th century. The practice was unremarked until around 1770; attempts to correct it have been a fixture of schoolbooks ever since. Generations of teachers and critics have succeeded in taming most literary and learned writing, but intransitive lay persists in familiar speech and is a bit more common in general prose than one might suspect. Much of the problem lies in the confusing similarity of the principal parts of the two words. Another influence may be a folk belief that lie is for people and lay is for things. Some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do so slowly: many people have invested effort in learning to keep lie and lay distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.

What does all this mean? It means it’s not that serious if you get these verbs confused, but people like me will criticize you for it.

And I’m not lying. “It’s LIE, damn it. LIE! Not LAY, you idiot.”

Now, if there aren’t any questions, I’ll let this subject lie.

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12 thoughts on “Deadly Wordplay #3: Lie, Lied, Lay, Laid, and Lain

  1. Nice. The lyrics of that Bob Dylan song bug me every time. I seem to be noticing the lie/lay confusion more frequently in books. I suspect that intransitive lay will become standard use in my lifetime.

  2. I suspect it, too, Kat.

    I believe it stems mostly from ignorance, though, rather than an acceptance of some common colloquial use. I think more and more of us simply don’t have the formal eduction in grammar that we might have had in the olden days, so when we hear or see words used incorrectly, we often don’t recognize that there’s an error somewhere, and we perpetuate the misuse.

  3. Haha! Funny AND instructive 🙂 Honestly, there are so many songs out there that are grammar horrors without the consuelo-de-bobo of being musically inspired. And the worst thing is that my students justified their mistakes by quoting those songs!! Waaaah!

    (I’m a friend of Kat’s by the way 🙂 )

  4. If you don’t mind I’ll be using parts of this for my ESL students at some point, probably not the bits about gettting laid, though ^^. Very well explained, the world lost a good teacher, but I’m sure you’re less frustrated with your own career not depending on onther people understanding something.

  5. While you may feel alone in this, and that no one else would ever think to correct anyone (or correct ourselves??), I must mention I posted a blog about this on my myspace some months ago. Scroll to the bottom. It’s the first blog I posted!

    I should add this to my blog about the top ten ways to scare boys off!

    I thought mine was kind of funny, but yours is waaaay better. I found myself lying here wondering if I really had it all straight. Thanks for the refresher.

  6. I’m thoroughly confused now.
    Why can’t anyone write a grammar guide for this problem without creating more confusion? I get that you are being funny by playing on the words, but that doesn’t help the other 99.9% of us who don’t understand the usage. In fact, it causes more confusion. The first part made sense and then you started talking about dishonesty and I have no idea any longer if your examples are correct or not. Hope you had a good laugh. I didn’t.

    1. Bob, if you’re speaking as one of the “other 99.9%” then more of you need to speak up. You are the only one so far who has told me that you don’t get it, so right now you represent to me only .1%. Tell me what has confused you, and I will try to explain it better.

  7. Amazingly well presented, or should I have said, laid out for us? 🙂 I think the majority of the increasingly proliferating grammatical mistakes are definitely ignorance; but, as you point out, in some cases, deliberately chosen, to avoid misunderstanding, as in Dylan’s song. Could be for other reasons too, as in the case of replying “It’s me” to the query, “Who is it?” Incorrect (unless you are French), but so answered because it sounds stuck-up to say, “It’s I.”

  8. Ah, but what if the object in lay yourself down is UNDERSTOOD because for a long time after 1400 it has been so common as to be left out, as sometimes heard in “Give (me) it, now!”

    The doctor says lie down on the table and the mom says lay down, now, and go to sleep. I submit the latter is gentler, and probably from the time that lay yourself down was so very common. Now I lay (me or you) down to sleep.

    I say that this is a reason it is indeed true English, and in that case we use it still. Do not excise the nuance of natural language.

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