NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.
Tenses are tricky and this is shown with laying, lying, laid, lain, lay, and lied. For a start lied is the past tense of lying, as in telling a lie, as in telling an untruth and has nothing to do with lying down. English is fun that way.
We’ll work up so next we have lie and lay. These are both present tense and but lie refers to people or animals, ‘I lie down’, while lay refers to objects, ‘I lay the book down’. So far so… Oh, dear…
We can apply lay to people and animals in the past tense. This is where it gets particularly confusing because I have often seen grammar advice that ignores this. If we’re writing a story in past tense our characters don’t lie down they lay down.
Present tense – I go to the bed and lie down.
Past tense – I went to the bed and lay down.
This is where the confusion between lie and lay often comes from because it doesn’t divide as simply as one for living things and one for inanimate things all the time. Perhaps it would help if I added another person:
Past Tense – He lay down beside me.
If we applied the assumption that lay doesn’t apply to people it would either be ‘he lie down beside me’ or ‘he lied down beside me’. We know lie is present tense and therefore cannot be used in a past tense sentence in this way. However, we also know that lied refers to telling an untruth so that doesn’t work either. So in this instance lay can also be the past tense of lie.
However, if we’re referring to an inanimate object then it’s:
Present Tense – I lay the book down.
Past Tense – I laid the book down.
The fact that lay has its own past tense form is another aspect of the confusion but here we can apply the person/animal versus object logic. An object can be laid down, a person can’t. I don’t know why this is but that’s how it works.
Now what if something is already down when we enter a room?
Person/Animal – They were lying on the bed.
Object – The book was laying on the table.
Once again the person/animal versus object rule applies and a person is never laying on anything. The same logic applies to the past tense when something has been down for an extended period, I make this distinction because as we’ve seen lay can be the past tense of lie.
Past Tense of Lie – I had lain there a long time.
Past Tense of Lay – The book had laid there a long time.
So here we have two times the rule person/animal and object is always true. A person has always lain somewhere while an object has always laid.
Of course, there are going to be other instances where we reuse a word because English just can’t keep it simple. For instance we lay a table and a chicken lays an egg, we can also use lay to refer to a chicken laying, as in laying an egg, without mentioning the egg which doesn’t apply to any other use of lay.
Finally we have figures of speech. To lie low means to remain in hiding. To lay low refers means to knock someone down figuratively, as in with an insult or slander, rather than to actually push them down. However, when we speak colloquially people rarely argue with laying low referring to hiding.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. This is the last part.