LIE and LAY, with an explication of the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs

Even though we are discussing LIE and LAY, we are not going to giggle and nudge each other and roll our eyes. We are not twelve, after all. We are adults. Is that understood?

First of all, in order to understand the difference between LIE and LAY (I said no giggling), you have to understand the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb. I’m sorry, but you do.1

A transitive verb is one that takes a direct object. (Stop whining. You know what a direct object is: it’s the noun on which the verb acts directly.) An intransitive verb is one that does not take a direct object. Many if not most verbs can be both:


T: I bought a sweater.

I: When stock prices fell, I bought.


T: I read the paper every day.

I: I read instead of watching tv.


T: I walked the dog.

I: I walked to work.


T: I speak French.

I: I spoke with him yesterday, I speak softly, I never speak on the phone, I spoke at the seminar.

(This is rather a special case: I think “speak” is only transitive in the sense of “speak a language”—you can’t speak any other thing, or anyone.)


T: I put the dishes away.

I: No intransitive—you can’t just put, without putting something.


Your first assignment: Pay attention when you read something or listen to someone. Pick out the verbs. Figure out whether they are transitive or intransitive or both.


A note before we continue, for the sake of clarity: we are not talking about the verb “lie” meaning to tell an untruth. This verb “lie” is intransitive (you can lie about something, but you cannot lie something). It is conjugated lie, lied, have lied, as in, I lie all the time. I lied when I said I loved you. I have consistently lied about loving people so I could get them into bed.


Okay. On to the verbs we are concerned with. The problem is mostly that the past tense of LIE is the present tense of LAY, i.e. there is some overlap. But if you study the following, you should be able to get it straight in your mind.

LIE is intransitive. (You cannot LIE something.) It is conjugated LIE, LAY, LAIN, as in, I lie on the bed and look at the ceiling. Yesterday I lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling. Every day this week I have lain on the bed and looked at the ceiling. I need to get a life.

LAY is transitive. It always has to have an object (stop giggling!) (like “put” above). I lay the garments on the bed and the book on the table. If I am British, I lay the table. If I am lucky, I lay the person I’m lusting after. This verb is conjugated LAY, LAID, HAVE LAID, as in, I lay the person of my dreams only in my dreams. I laid the person of my dreams in my dreams last night. I have never actually laid the person of my dreams.

You cannot grammatically tell someone to lay down. You tell them to lie down (and hope they will comply). Or you tell them to lay something down, as in, Lay down the gun before somebody gets hurt.

An author who ought to know better (and who will therefore remain nameless) in one of his works has a character say, “If you will lay a night with me….” What, as in, you hold the night down and I’ll lay it, and then we can switch? You can lay a knight, but not a night.

That’s all there is to it.


1 Interesting sidelight: “Jerk off” is transitive: He jerked me, himself, and the mailman off. “Jack off” is intransitive: He jacked off. Many people don’t know this and get it wrong. (I thought I said no giggling! Class dismissed.)