Do Not Misuse Lay and Lie (even though Booker Prize winners have done so with impunity)
The best way to remember the difference between lay and lie is to know that lie is intransitive (no object) and lay is transitive (object).* Like so:
She lies in bed. (no object)
She lays the doll in its bed. (the doll is the object of the verb lay)
The reason people get confused is that the past tense of lie is lay (and also that everyone around them is confused!).
Here is how to conjugate the two verbs:
Present: She lies in bed.
Past: She lay in bed.
Past perfect: She has lain in bed.
Present: She lays the doll in its bed.
Past: She laid the doll in its bed.
Past perfect: She has laid the doll in its bed.
The following sentences are INCORRECT:
The dog lays down when I tell him to.
Lay down, Rover!
Just lie the book down over there.
She just laid there like there was nothing wrong.
If you misuse lay and lie, you are in good company. See G by John Berger, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and many more (though I think the real culprits here are publishing houses who don’t prioritize editing). Sure, all these books are fabulous and have done very well. But don’t make that an excuse to continue in error. Learn from the mistakes of others!
*There are other meanings of “to lay” that are intransitive and don’t tend to get confused with “to lie.” For example, one could say, “the hen lays,” which would mean that the hen produces eggs. A hunter can also “lay for deer.” And of course there is the verb “to lie” that means to say something untrue. But this is all a bit outside of our discussion for this week.