In this corner, the reigning intransitive champion of the English-speaking world, Recumbent Lie. And in the opposite corner, the feisty challenger, the transitive champion, Setdown Lay. Lay has been trying to overcome Lie since the 14th century and is making great headway. According to Bryan Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, the use of lay when lie is correct is the most frequent mistake made in the English language. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is almost (but not quite) prepared to throw in the towel: “Some commentators,” says the lexicon, “are ready to abandon the distinction.” But it cautions, “…even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.”
In the simplest terms lie means “to recline” or “or to be situated.” People and objects may both lie: You lie on the floor of the saloon. The empty whisky bottle lies next to you. Lay means “to put or set [something] down.” One may lay both people and objects: I will pick you up and lay you on the sofa. Then I will lay the whisky bottle on the bar.
The confusion between the two is caused by how the verbs are declined. (For a definition of decline, see The Decline and Fall of the Woman Umpire.) The past tense of lie is lay, and the past participle is lain. Lay’s past tense and past participle are both laid. So if you lie on the floor in the present, and lay on it in the past—some people will naturally, though incorrectly, assume that you can lay on it the present as well.
Both Messrs. Lie and Lay, by the way, hope that you will not confuse them with other similar-sounding verbs. Prevaricating Lie, whose past tense and past participle are both lied, does not even stem from the same root as Recumbent Lie. And Setdown Lay’s cousin, the disreputable Getz Laid, has been disowned by the family as too vulgar for words.
Ken Lay and Frito-Lay do not enter into this discussion.
Always eager to add to the confusion, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou hopes these
demonic, mnemonic verses will be just the ticket:
The lazy farmer’s wife declared, “You layabout—
Get up, go buy a chicken coop on layaway.
Don’t lie to me about the cash that you lay out,
My hens must have a decent place to lay.”
I was laid up, so I lay down
To lie low while I was sick.
My boss rang up to lay me off,
And I laid it on quite thick.
But still my boss laid into me--
That made me worse, no doubt.
Now on my tomb engraved you’ll see:
“Laid up, laid low, laid off, laid out.”