Monday, December 7, 2009

Lay or Lie?

“Only in grammar can you be more than perfect.” - William Safire

The genres represented by the writers in my critique group are as varied as our personalities. However, at last week’s meeting, I learned we all had one thing in common—insecurity about using those pesky verbs, lay and lie.

It’s tough for writers to admit grammar weaknesses, but once one person bravely spoke up, like alcoholics admitting their problem in front of a group of peers, we all came forward and confessed. “Hello, my name is Jane, and I have grammar issues with lay and lie.”

Afterwards, I decided to delve into the subject by logging onto the internet in hopes that I could offer some magic “cure” at our next meeting.

From the number of articles written on the topic, I determined the problem was not confined to our little writing group. Confusion is widespread. In some circumstances misusage is even accepted.

For instance "Lay Down Sally," by Eric Clapton should, grammatically speaking, be "Lie Down Sally" and "Lay Lady Lay" by Dylan should be "Lie Lady Lie." Songwriters are obviously given more poetic license with proper usage than the average author.

Lots of sites offered explanations using words like transitive, intransitive, direct objects and so on. Something about these terms causes my brain to glaze over and focus solely on finding chocolate.

I found this helpful hint on Judy Vorfelds Editing and Writing Services site:

“A good way to decide whether to use "lie" or "lay" is to substitute the word "place" (or placing, or placed) for whatever word is in question. If it fits, use "lay" or one of its forms. Otherwise, use "lie" or one of its forms.”

Many sites offered charts, but I liked this simple one from the TriSec Blog:

However, in my opinion, the following picture illustrates the best solution for this problem:

I’m aware that in my blog on literary tattoos , I said I wouldn’t want one, but this has me seriously reconsidering.

The above photo is from the article, “Learning ‘Lay’ and ‘Lie’” by Gerald Grow, Ph.D. If you’d like to know how to use lay/lie without depending on hints, charts or tattoos, you may want to pay a visit to this site. Dr. Grow offers a five step approach to mastering their use.

How do you keep lay and lie straight?

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Safire, lay or lie, Clapton, Dylan, Gerald Grow,


Michele Emrath said...

Ok. This is a great post. I love the "literary" tattoos. And I'm thinking about getting them for my husband becuase I am CONSTANTLY correcting his grammar! My parents always start sentences with, "The English major says..."

It's really all about who or what is doing the action. If a person is lying down, then it is lie. If a person is laying an object down, then it is lay.

"Lie down, Jake." (me to my son)
"Lay down the gun." (laying an object down)


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Good post, Jane! I have no problem admitting I have issues with lay & lie - and numerous other grammar issues as well. LOL

Joanne said...

Very helpful post. Cute idea with the tatoos! It's always helpful to have little tools, or fun rules, to guide our writing. I've had ongoing issues with lay/lie, but now thanks to this post, those issues are a little clearer. Still, I fear some doubts never get laid to rest;)

Karen Walker said...

I leave it for my editor to fix.
Great post!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Literary tattoos! Love them!

This is a problem I don't have because my dad is an English professor and set me straight at a VERY early age. :) I didn't dare mess them up. But my husband does all the time.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Helen Ginger said...

Literary tattoos are a good idea, but before long I would be covered and then where would I be when I was no longer limber enough to check the tattoo on the back of my knees? I wouldn't know whether to lay down and look in the mirror or lie the mirror down and stand over it. See what I mean? I should not have tatooed lie/lay there!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the two "other" verbs in this group -- to tell a lie, and to get laid.

The latter one, in particular, is fun to conjugate.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Hmmmmm. I didn’t realize Dylan Thomas had written any songs. Just kidding, just kidding. Well, if it were ONLY lay and laid, or lied, or whatever they are that caused me problems, I’d count myself lucky and happy. Sadly, I’m trouble by (with?) nearly every grammatical(?) sin and problem know to man—or woman. But, to answer your question, I don’t even try to keep them straight. I count on the ignorance of others not to notice. That way, I don’t have to lay…uh…lie…uh…assume a recumbent posture at night and worry much about it.

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Anonymous said...

What about, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep"? That's way before Dylan and Clapton. I have no trouble with "lie" and "lay," but editing runs in my family. The past participles are a bit daunting, though.

BTW,today on my own blog, I reprinted the guest post about writers as introverts that ran here on November 16th. I provided a link to your blog, so I hope you'll get some visitors as a result. There's still time for people to take the Jung Typology Test either here on your blog or on mine. The link is

Carol Kilgore said...

Thanks, Jane. I have trouble with lay/lie, too. Maybe this will help.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Grammar. Grrrr. Let's not forget lying about lying down. It's all just so much fun.


The Old Silly said...

Excellent tutorial post. I got this one bookmarked. ;)

Marvin D Wilson

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi, this is a fabulous post. I have been known to completely rewrite sentences to get rid of the word lay or lie, so that I don't have to worry about being correct. lol.

Thanks for the great notes.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Does anyone want to start on who and whom? Shoot me now...

Alexis Grant said...

Oh gosh, the lay/lie thing still gets me every time. It's one of those rules I simply canNOT remember! Lucky spellcheck seems to have that down for me...

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world