Monday, April 23, 2012

Grammar Brigade: Lay vs. Laid

I admit it: this one has tripped me up before. When do I use lay, and when do I use laid? Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the question is also lie vs lay, with the past tense of lie being lay! What? Huh?

I'll make it easier. To start with, let's focus on the present tense of lie vs. lay.

To lie: (past tense, lay) to move in such a way that results in lying down. The subject does this motion itself without help.

To lay: (past tense, laid) to put something down. Requires a direct object (that is, the thing being put down, where the thing being put down is used as a second noun in the sentence.)

And easier still:

I lie down. (Did I do it myself? Then I use lie.)

The book is lying on the table. (The book is lying there. I'm not helping it sit there.)

On the table tells me where;  the "where" is not considered a direct object because it's part of a prepositional phrase. On, by, under, beneath, in, etc. are all "where" statements that tell you the location is not an object.

I lay a book down.  (The book did not lay itself down. If someone else is doing the action, use lay.)

I lay myself down. (Yes, I'm doing the action, but I'm doing it to myself, so myself is the direct object. If you use lay in the present tense, you must use a reflexive noun [myself, itself, yourself].)

Past Tense

Okay. Now let's look at past tense. Here we have lay vs. laid. This is confusing because lay is the past tense of lie, and laid is the past tense of lay. Holy homonyms, Batman!

I went to the store. When I got there, I lay down in the cereal aisle. (I was doing this without help, so I use the past tense of lie.)

The book was laying on the table. (Nobody was helping it sit there.)

I laid a book down on the floor. (I was the one doing the action to the book, so I use the past tense of lay.)

I laid myself down in the cereal aisle. (Myself: if a reflexive noun is used, then we're probably dealing with the past tense of lay.)

Still confused? Look at it this way:

Present                Past               Object Needed?
Lie                       Lay                No
Lay                      Laid               yes

I also suggest checking out Grammar Girl's explanation if you'd like more practice (since that's where I went to figure this out in the first place!)


1. Yesterday, my kid brother threw a fit and ___ himself down in the middle of the cafeteria.

2. The hero ___ his love interest down on the operating table to remove her spleen.

3. There's a dragon ____ in the middle of the road. Do you want to ask him to move, or shall I?

4. Yesterday, a goose ____ beneath the troll bridge. Apparently the trolls were on vacation.

5. Three weeks ago, I got mad and ___ down in the cereal aisle.


1. laid      2. laid/lays    3. lying    4. lay   5. lay

Now you try! Write a sentence using lay and laid correctly for the comments. For extra brownie points, make it related to the previous comment!

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