The Lie Down Lowdown

A Romp around Two Crazy-making Verbs

Lay down and go to sleep!  A phrase we may have heard when we were children, or said it ourselves to our own restless toddlers.  “Lay down and go to sleep!”  But wait, is that right?  Or is it “Lie down and go to sleep”?

I flatter myself that I have a good grasp of the English language.  Spelling is my superpower, punctuation my passion.  Grammar—well, mostly okay, but it can be a bit of a grind.

There are two similar verbs that continue to confound me:  the verbs “to lie” and “to lay”.  (Lie in this case meaning to recline, rather than to tell a falsehood.  But perhaps there’s a connection somewhere.)

Whenever I write something and I want a character to take their ease on a flat surface, such as a bed, or if I want them to take an item and place it somewhere, I have to look up whether I want them to lie or to lay.

Confusingly, the past tense of lie is lay.  And don’t get me started about the present participle of lie (okay, I’m already started:  it’s lying.  Seriously.)

No matter how many times I look them up, I can’t seem to fix it in my mind which verb means which and is conjugated in what way.  I always have to stop and look it up (my go-to reference is the 2013 Voice article Writer’s Toolbox – Now I Lay Me Down and Weep.)  Or, as is often the case—I reword the sentence to avoid using either lie or lay.

Since I’ve already had to look it up today, I can tell you the following:

The verb “to lie” pertains to the self—the person performing the action.  If I want to take my ease on the sofa, I will lie down.  (The memory aid for this is that “lie” contains an “I”—if only I could remember to think of that!)

The verb “to lay” pertains to something or someone other than the self.  If I want to place an object (or, I suppose, a small person) on the table or the floor, I will lay it (or them) down.

That’s so easy, right?  I lie down.  I lay my tools down.  I lay the baby on the blanket.

But wait, there’s more!  If the action took place earlier today, then I would say that I lay down on the sofa.  I lie on the sofa (now), I lay on the sofa (in the past.)  As for my tools and baby, I lay them down (now), I laid them down (in the past.)

Now with the past participle:  I have lain on the sofa for an hour now.   I have laid my tools down several times.  And with the present participle:  I am lying on the sofa right now (not literally; I’m actually sitting at my desk.)  I am laying my tools down now.

Screaming yet?  I am!

It makes the bedtime prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” a bit confusing (shouldn’t it be “lie”?).  Except that the person praying is laying themselves down like an object (I lay ME down to sleep, rather than just I lie down to sleep.)  Bit of a technicality, but it’s correct—I think.

I’ve always thought I should let sleeping dogs lie.  But should I let them lay?  The more I think about it, the more my head hurts.

I think I’d better lie down for a while.