Today’s sticky grammar question comes to us by way of Feather over at Tatterdemallion. She writes:
Ooh! Oooh! Lay/lie? I’ve had this explained to me several times by a fabulous teacher, but I am unable to make it stick in my mind. I blame Bob Dylan. I think I’ve got it, but then I start humming “Lay Lady Lay” and I begin to second doubt myself.
This is a tough one for a lot of people, and Bob Dylan isn’t helping at all.
“Lay” means “to place”. It is a transitive verb, which is just a technical way of saying that it needs a direct object – there’s always something that receives the action of laying (yeah, yeah – I know what you’re thinking – knock it off):
“I laid my keys down on the table, but now they’re gone!”
“Lay the book on the counter while you put the cream in your coffee.”
“She plans to lay out the best china for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Lie” is an intransitive verb that means “to recline.” It doesn’t have a direct object:
“I have a headache. I’m going to lie down to see if it will go away on its own.”
“The fault lies in not knowing how to effectively manage your time.”
“If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”
The trick I use? Try to replace the verb form with whatever tense of “place” works in the context. In above:
“I placed my keys down on the table, but now they’re gone” works.
“I have a headache. I’m going to place down to see if it will go away on its own” doesn’t.