Grammar Minute – Lie, Lay, Laid, Lain

One of the common errors I always check for while editing a book is the use of lie vs lay vs laid vs lain. Before I got into copyediting, I always had to look up which one I was supposed to use. They’re so frequently misused that we can’t rely on “that sounds wrong” like we can for so many other verbs. That makes these especially tricky.

So what is the difference?

There are two separate verbs here (with fairly similar meanings) that have overlapping spellings in different tenses.

Verb #1: lie (past: lay, [had] lain)
In this one, the subject is the thing that lies.
ex. “I like to lie down after a long run.”

Verb #2: lay (past: laid, [had] laid)
This one has a subject *and* something separate that’s being laid.
ex. “I lay my backpack down when I go inside.”

Here’s my trick: try replacing “lie” or “lay” with “sit” or “place.” 
If “sit” (or “sat”) would fit better, then you should use the verb “lie.” 
If “place” (or “placed”) would fit better, then you should use the verb “lay.”

Now that you know which verb you’re working with, you need to determine which tense you should use. The easiest way to do this is by going back to those same substitutions.

tense present past past participle
Verb #1: lie lie (sit) lay (sat) [had] lain ([had] sat)
Verb #2: lay lay (place) laid (placed) [had] laid ([had] placed)

One trick to keep these straight is that there’s only a D (“laid”) when there’s a direct object (Verb #2).

The good news is that the more you find and fix this error in your writing, the more natural it will become to use the correct form. With that in mind, here’s your opportunity to get more comfortable with lie/lay/laid/lain:

Your “homework”:

1. Pick one (unedited) book to check.
2. Search for instances of “lie,” “lying,” “lay,” “laying,” “laid,” and “lain.” (Try including a space before the word so you don’t have to look at words like “explain” and “plaid.”)
3. Use the substitution “sit” or “place” to determine a) which verb you should use and b) which tense it should be in.
4. Fix any errors you find. If you aren’t sure which word should be used in certain sentences, send them my way; I’m happy to help!
5. Enjoy the feeling of knowing your book is even better than it was before!

Paige K

What are your grammar hang-ups? Let me know, and you may see them featured in future blog posts.

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