I don’t feel too bad about not using lie and lay without having to confer with a dictionary or usage guide, even at the age of 37. Harlan Ellison even admitted he had trouble untangling the two. The solution should’ve occurred to me sooner, but I never felt an impetus, or a nagging concern, to once and for all lay lie and lay on a table and lie myself with them until I could no longer tolerate it. What used to trip me up is that there are two verbs spelled “lie”, both with obviously different meanings, yet with different conjugations, which is neither obvious nor intuitive. The trick to know is that there is no trick to memorize that helps one properly use lie and lay; rather, one must wrangle with rote memorization. In other words, the same strategy I used to come to terms with Latin words works well with lie and lay. If it’s any consolation, the rather simple words “this” and “that” are vastly, vastly more complicated in Latin than lie and lay are in English. If you ever get in the mood to have some fun with rote memorization, just run all the declensions of “this” and “that” from Latin through your mind for a few months. Be thankful you’re using English.
There are two English verbs spelled “lie” and each has a different meaning and a different conjugation. The first meaning of “lie” has the forms: lie, lay, lain, lying, and lies. The second meaning of “lie” has the forms: lie, lied, lying, and lies. The only orthographic differences between the two are in the past tense and pluperfect, or past perfect tense. The second meaning of “lie” can also function as a noun. Both of the “lie” verbs are intransitive, which means they cannot take a direct object.
There is only one English verb spelled “lay”, yet there are four separate words with the same spelling. The second “lay” is an adjective and refers to someone that is not a professional, such as a layperson. The third “lay” is an obscure noun that refers to a poem that is sung, or just some tune. The fourth “lay” we have already met and it is the past tense of the first meaning of “lie”. (Note: there are nautical variations of “lay” that I left out on purpose. Unless you are a sailor or someone that works on boats, you will probably never hear them or need to use them.)
The verb “lay” has the forms: lay, laid, laying, and lays. Since “lay” is transitive, it must take a direct object. When I was taking Latin, a great emphasis was placed on knowing whether a verb was transitive or intransitive; that fact had to be known for each verb. When using your native language, consciously conjuring to mind whether a verb is transitive or intransitive doesn’t help with usage, unless something rather unusual is happening. Everyone knows you can hit a ball or sleep soundly without knowing anything about transitive or intransitive. But I feel that formality is essential for coming to terms with lie and lay, along with rote memorization.
Here are some sample fragments from a Harlan Ellison story:
He lay unmoving for a time
This fragment is using the past tense of “lie” and there is no direct object. It is correct. It feels more correct to say, out loud, He laid unmoving for a time. I do it and everyone does it, but it is grammatically incorrect. I’ve read that correctness is determined by usage, so there may come a day when dictionaries formally define the past tense of “lie” as “laid”.
He laid her down gently
This fragment is using the past tense of “lay” and there is a direct object. It is correct. It also feels correct to say out loud.
This fragment is using the gerundial, or verbal noun, form of “lie”. It is correct. But it feels more correct to say laying there, which is grammatically incorrect, since there is no direct object. It would be correct to say The ship was laying transatlantic cable; there is a clear direct object.