The Transitive Eric Clapton, or Lie vs. Lay

English is my mother tongue, and now that I’m using it professionally, I make it my business to understand the way it works. At the same time, I wonder how anyone manages to learn English successfully as a second language. English is filled with things that don’t make any sense. Consider these four letters: “ough.” Now, for a good laugh, watch Ricky Ricardo consider them here.

English can be a minefield even for native speakers. Many of us would rather rewrite a sentence than try to figure out whether to use “lie” or “lay.” Rewriting the sentence is always an option; I’ve used it myself when I’m in a hurry. Instead of risking overwritten sentences, though, isn’t it a better idea to sort out the difference between “lie” and “lay”? Wouldn’t that make everyone feel a little better?

There’s really only one difference, and it’s pretty basic. “Lay” is transitive, and it takes an object. “Lie” is intransitive, and it doesn’t take an object. That’s it. It’s not any more complicated than that.

Use “lie” for things that are in a horizontal position – you know, just lying there – or for things in the process of assuming that position, by lying down. Use “lay” if you’re talking about putting something else in the horizontal position. Once you lay the phone on the table, the phone is just lying there. If you’re talking about something putting *itself* in that position, use “lie.” You would lay down the remote, for instance, before lying down to sleep.

Now be honest. How many times have you used “set down” or “put down” instead of “lay down”? It does sound a little weird, and people who aren’t sure of it will look at you strangely. But it’s correct.

Once we get to the past tense for “lie” and “lay,” things get a little more difficult. The past tense for “lay” is “laid.” The past tense for “lie” is “lay.” Don’t panic. Just give yourself a little time and look for the object. “The cat lay in the laundry basket” uses the past tense of “lie” – no object. “The cat laid her squeaky toy in the laundry basket” uses the past tense of “lay” and a direct object.

The past participles have similar potential to be confusing, with “lain” as the past participle of “lie” and “laid” as the past participle of “lay.” I know I just said not to cheat, but I do like to use a quick tip with the participles. It is very unusual, I think, to use the past participle of any intransitive verb. It’s easier and more elegant just to use the past form, and it’s usually no less correct. Seriously. I can’t tell you that “the cat had lain in the laundry basket all night long” is a better sentence than “the cat lay in the laundry basket all night long.” The past participle seems to matter more with a transitive verb because precision seems to make a difference when the object is involved. That might be because a transitive verb focuses on a specific act, rather than a state of existence.

I know. I love that kind of thing.

What does Eric Clapton have to do with this?

One of Eric Clapton’s most popular songs, “Lay Down Sally” (again no commas), poses a more interesting question. If it’s an invitation, like the Dylan song, then it’s grammatically incorrect, like the Dylan song, although it would sound horrendous if we used “lie.” Like the Dylan song.

But the Clapton song poses another possibility. Since there is no comma in the title, and since we know “lay” is a transitive verb, isn’t it possible that this is an invitation … to someone else? What if Sally were the object? Could Eric be asking some other person to place Sally in a reclining position?

Isn’t grammar wonderful?

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

2 thoughts on “The Transitive Eric Clapton, or Lie vs. Lay

  • You know, I’m pretty good with grammar, but this is one of those that I just have to hang in a stickie note over my desk. The logic, even when explained so well as you did, escapes me. I think I’ll bookmark this page while I’m at it. 🙂

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