LawProse Lesson #205: Lay, v.t. vs. lie, v.i.

LawProse Lesson #205: Lay, v.t. vs. lie, v.i.

Lay, v.t. vs. lie, v.i. These two short verbs can cause tall trouble. Let’s lay down some helpful guidelines so we won’t be accused of lying down on the job. Lay means “to put down, place, or arrange.” It’s always transitive—it needs a direct object {Please lay the purchase contract on Stan’s desk.}. Lie means “to recline, be situated.” It’s always intransitive—it can’t take a direct object {I’m going to lie on the bed until the dizziness stops.}. Using lay instead of lie is one of the most widely known usage errors in speech and writing {She is going to lay [read lie] down in the guest room.} {We were laying [read lying] on the beach yesterday.}. Although this error has become so common that some commentators claim it’s no longer a mistake, using lay without a direct object, in the sense of lie, is nonstandard. People who know the difference will catch the misuse. A big source of the confusion is the way these verbs are inflected—lay is also the past-tense form of lie: lay>laid>laid: {Please lay down the weapon.} {He laid the weapon down immediately.} {The problem has been laid to rest.}. lie>lay>lain: {The nurse told me to lie on the stretcher.} {My mother lay down and took a nap.} {The disease has lain dormant for two years.}. So both these sentences are correct: “I’m going to lay the baby down for his nap.” and “The baby lay down for his nap at 2:00 p.m.” The first sentence uses the transitive lay in the present tense; the second uses the past tense of intransitive lie. And if you laid the baby down ten minutes ago, he’s lying in his crib now. Yes, it can make your head spin and make you want to lie down or at least lay down your head. We could go on and on. But we’ll now lay this lesson aside and lie low until next week. Further reading: Garner’s Modern American Usage 501–03, 510 (3d ed. 2009). Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 528, 544 (3d ed. 2011). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 12.3, at 290 (3d ed. 2013).

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