GRAMMAR TIP: Lay vs. Lie
Knowing the difference between ‘lying’ and ‘laying’ requires the speaker to recognize the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
A transitive verb takes a direct object. The action of the transitive verb carries across to a direct object. This direct object receives the action of the verb.
Example: The man drives a truck.
The verb is “drive”. To determine whether the verb has a direct object, one asks, “drives what?” In this example, there is an answer: drives a truck. The verb “drives” in this sentence is transitive. “Truck” receives the action.
It’s super important to remember that some verbs are always transitive and some are always intransitive. Many, like “drive” may be either transitive or intransitive.
Example: Every Sunday, my family drives to the city.
If we apply the previous question “drives what?” to this sentence, we do not get an answer. Nothing in the sentence receives the action. There is no direct object, so in this sentence, “drive” is an intransitive verb. The action remains with the verb. (The phrase “to the city” tells where the family drives.)
The common confusion between the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ is understandable because the form ‘lay’ exists in the conjugations of both verbs:
‘to lie’–intransitive verb meaning “to recline; to rest horizontally”:
Present: Today, I lie on the bed.
Past: Yesterday, I lay on the bed.
Present Perfect: I have lain on the bed all day.
Present Continuous: I am lying on the bed.
‘to lay’–transitive verb meaning “to place; to put”:
Present: Today, I lay the book on the table.
Past: Yesterday, I laid the book on the table.
Present Perfect: I have laid the book on the table.
Present Continuous: I am laying the book on the table.
English has two other verbs that may confuse the issue further:
‘to lie’– “to tell a falsehood” – generally intransitive:
Present: Today I lie about my age.
Past: Yesterday I lied about my age.
Present Perfect: I have lied about my age.
Present Continuous: I am lying about my age.
‘to lay’– “to produce an egg” – may be transitive or intransitive:
Present: The hens lay eggs. (transitive) The hens lay well. (intransitive)
Past: The hen laid three eggs. (transitive)
Present Perfect: The hen has laid an egg every day this week. (transitive)
Present Continuous: The hens are laying well this year. (intransitive)