What’s correct, lay or lie?

A STAFF REPORT FROM THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD

Dear Straight Dope:

Would it be correct to say Jimmy lay down or Jimmy lie down?

Dianne replies:

It would be better for you to check a simple grammar text, from about 9th grade … but lie and lay are always somewhat confusing. Lay is a transitive verb meaning “to put”; lie is an intransitive verb meaning “to recline.” Transitive means there is some object that the verb acts upon, so “now I lay me down to sleep”: I am putting/placing me down to sleep. “Me” is the object, so to speak. Intransitive means that there is no object being acted upon, so “now I lie down”; means now I am reclining.

We omit the meaning of lie “to tell falsehood” for the moment, since that’s not usually confused with the others.

The proper usage is as follows:

Lay (put or place):

Today, I lay the book on the table.

Yesterday, I laid the book on the table.

I have laid the book on the table.

Lie (recline):

Today, I lie on the bed.

Yesterday, I lay on the bed.

I have lain on the bed.

The confusion arises because the past tense of lie (namely, lay) is the same as the present tense of lay (namely, lay), if you follow that bit. And also because when I lie down (present tense, intransitive), I can be said to lay my body down (present tense, transitive).

So, in your example, “Jimmy [something] down”, it depends on the context. The following three are all correct:

– Jimmy lay down on the sofa yesterday afternoon.

– Jimmy, lie down this instant and stop running around! (the imperative doesnt have the “s”).

– In response to the command, Jimmy lies down. (Note the “s’)

The other “lie” as in to falsify would be:

Today I lie to the cops.

Yesterday I lied to the cops.

I have lied to the cops.

It is simple, it does follow reasonable and clear rules, it’s just confusing.

–STSTAFF Dex and

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.

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