What is the deal with lie and lay? What is the difference between these two words, and when and where are they correctly used?

The answer lies in the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Transitive verbs transfer action; they take an object and throw it, eat it, write it, beat it . . . and lay it down. I can lay a bat down, lay the plate on the table, and  . . . lie around all day.

Another problem is the form, or spelling of the two verbs. Lie is one verb; it is intransitive. It does not take any object. Lay is another verb; it is transitive. It TAKES that object! BUT (tricky, tricky!) the past of lie is the present of lay. Look at this chart:

Infinitive    Past Tense    Past Participle    Present Participle
Intransitive    [to ]Lie    lay        lain        lying
Trans.        [to] Lay    laid        laid        laying

Check your sentences carefully for meaning and think to yourself, What's my object? The presence or absence of direct objects is often a clue to using the correct form.

Thus, today I lay (present of lay) the bat down. Yesterday I lay (past of lie) on the bed. When "I lay me down to sleep," the verb "lay" has an object, "me," (which of course should be the reflexive pronoun "myself," but I can certainly accept the children's prayer as idiomatic). When one lies down, there is no object, except perhaps a nice nap.

Once upon a time, Lay's potato chips ads claimed, "I bet you can't eat just one." I'm betting that you now will be able to lie on the couch, take one chip from the bag, lay it on your tongue, and repeat over and over, all the time lying to yourself that you did indeed have just one.

Aha! Look for your object. Remember the chart. Now I can lie down. The keyboard lies on the desk, at peace at last.

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