Laying down the principles of ‘lay’ and ‘lie’

Two Associated Press leads from Sunday’s newspaper sent up a signal flare.

They reminded me that it was time to talk again about “lay” and “lie,” if only to remind people that “lie” and “lying” are actual words they can – and should – use.

The two leads, one from Texas, the other from England, both used “laying” to mean “lying.”

Here’s the quick way to tell the two verbs apart:

“Lay” means “put,” and it always takes a direct object. “Lie” means “recline,” and it doesn’t need a direct object.

If “lay” were truly the right verb, we could substitute “put” in the two AP leads and still have coherent sentences. So here goes:

… leaving a mangled chunk of the crane putting atop an unfinished building …

… she spent hours putting around her home …

Neither makes sense. So clearly the sentences needed the verb “lying”:

… leaving a mangled chunk of the crane lying atop an unfinished building …

… she spent hours lying around her home …

There’s more to it than that, but using the “put” substitution will usually help you decide between “lay” and “lie.”

Bananas the monkey explained things in more detail in a video I created last year. Let’s bring him back in all his robotic glory and let him lay it on you again.

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