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the L words - lay, laid, have lain

Let’s discuss the L-word.

Lie. Lay. Have lain. Lay (again). Laid. Have laid.

Do you know when to use each “L-word”—and why to use it?

For those of you who really don’t care about the why, here’s a quick way to remember.
At least for present tense. After that, things get a little sticky.

If you pLAYce (yes, that’s an intentional typo) an item, you LAY the item.
When you’re tired, you recLIEne (again, intentional typo) or LIE down.

You do not lie an item on the counter, nor do you lay on your bed.

Ready for more?

Let’s get technical, technical…
Wait. I don’t think that’s the song. But now Olivia Newton-John is in your head. Enjoy.

Transitive vs. Intransitive Verbs
Specifically, L-verbs.

Oh, big grammar words.
Why can’t they just say what they mean?

These words do say what they mean, if you know where to look.
And in this case, we look at the Latin.

Transitive comes from the Latin transire (sound familiar? Transit, anyone?) with the meaning “to pass over.” Passing over, as in, passing the potatoes. Not as in a plane passing overhead, nor as in the sense of “not picking” someone in Duck-Duck-Goose.

Technically, it comes from transitivus (the lost Seinfeld episode: “Transitivus for the Rest of Us”) but that’s not so important.

The meaning, however, is important, because if you remember the meaning, you can recall the use.

“To pass over” describes passing the action, but it’s also a mnemonic to help us remember how to use transitive verbs.

An object is in transit. A DIRECT object is in transit. It is being moved. Yes, this is oversimplification, but it works.

Transitive L-words: lay, laid, have/has/had laid.

You lay the object. He laid the object. She has laid the object.  (The DIRECT object.)

  • Example 1: Kate passed her book over to James. (Kate is passing an object/item.)
  • Example 2: Kate lay her lunch tray next to Sam. (Kate is laying an object/item.)

Both of these usages are transitive; the verb needs a direct object—and sometimes an indirect object)—to perform the action ON.
Yes, I ended with a preposition. No one cares anymore.

Intransitive verbs (remember, the prefix in– means “not”) do NOT require a direct object and do NOT pass the action to an object. They just ACT.

Intransitive L-words: lie, lay, have/has/had lain.
You lie down. He lay down. She has lain down. (Just action. No direct object.)

  • Example 1: Kate passed out. (No object/item/)
  • Example 2: Kate lay on the floor. (No object/item.)

OH, but wait. We just saw “lay” twice. What the hey? 

Yes, my friends, it’s annoying and confusing, but transitive present-tense “lay” looks just like intransitive past-tense “lay.”

This one, for me, just required straight mnemonic memorization. If you have a better way, please share.
Charlie, lie down right now. (Present.)
Yesterday, Mr. Gray lay down. (Past.)
And then, just remember that in the present tense, you lay an object down. (This is fairly easy since I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’ll just lie my keys on the dresser.” Have you?)

But wait, there’s more! To further confuse things, how do we know when to use laid or lain?

Oh, did we read this far just to muddle all these L-words?

Nope, thanks to more mnemonic fun.

I lay the present on the table today, laid my keys on the table yesterday, and at some point, I have laid my book on my past participle—I mean, my desk.

Transitive “lay” requires past and past participle versions of laid. Remember: if your verb is Doing action to a Direct object, you need the past tense/past participle ending in D (laid/have laid).

Intransitive “lie” uses a past participle ending in “n.” If there’s No direct object, you need “have laiN.”

I just made this last bit up. Be amazed. (I am.) Finally, I can keep these ridiculously similar L-words straight.