Monthly Archives: September 2013

Lie down (or is it lay down)!

This week we discuss the use of “lie” versus “lay,” a topic that sucks us into the realm of transitive verbs (which require an object to express a complete thought) and intransitive verbs (which don’t).  Lay is a transitive verb, so it should be used with a direct object, e.g., “Lay your cards on the table.”  (“Your cards” is the direct object of the verb “lay.”)  Lie is an intransitive verb and does not require a direct object, e.g., “I need to lie down.”

Because that might not make a lot of sense, here’s another way to think about it. “Lay” means to place or put; so you always “lay” something, e.g.,

  • Lay your book on the counter.  (“Book” is the direct object of the verb “lay.”)
  • Lay your hat over there.  (“Hat” is the object of “lay.”)
  • Now I lay me down to sleep.  (“Me” is the object of “lay.”)

“Lie” means to rest on a surface—it doesn’t act on anyone or anything else, e.g.,

  • Lie down on the bed.
  • My pencil lies next to my bobbleheads.

Got it?  Good, because now it’s time to talk about the past tense and past participle of lay and lie.  (Past participles are adjectives formed from verbs.)  Both of these verbs are irregular, and super confusing.  So to help you keep track, here’s a chart:

VERB        Present Tense        Past Tense           Past Participle

  Lay                 Lay                                      Laid                               Laid

  Lie                   Lie                                       Lay(!)                           Lain          

As you can see, the present tense of “lay” is the past tense of “lie.”  (Wait … what?)  That’s one reason that English is such a hard language to learn—crazy irregular verbs.  Anyway, here are examples of the past tense and past participle of “lay”:

  • Yesterday, I laid my cards on the table—and lost.
  • I have laid my hat on your sofa.
  • Last night, I laid me down to sleep.

Here are examples of the past tense and past participle of “lie”:

  • Last night, the cat lay in wait for his food.
  • The cat has lain in wait for his food for hours … and hours … and hours.  (Where are his people?)

That is all for now …

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Less & fewer!

Let’s look in this week’s mailbag.

Dear Scribe:

I hope to make less (fewer?) writing errors. Can you explain when to use “less” and when to use “fewer”?

[signed] Less is More

Dear Less:

Use “less” for mass nouns and amounts; in other words, things that are not countable, like water, power, influence, and popularity.  For example:  “The public has less interest in buying compact discs than was true 20 years ago.”

Use “fewer” when referring to countable things, like people, points, apples, and days.  For example:  “Alex Rodriguez has hit fewer home runs since he stopped taking PEDs.”

That is all for now …

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