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Understanding When to Use Lie, Lay, Laid, and Lain

Okay, let’s be honest. We’ve all had to look up the difference between lie, lay, laid, and lain at least once or twice. Maybe that quick review really sorted things out for you, and now you’re a “lie, lay, laid, lain” aficionado… but, then again… maybe you’re not.

Maybe, just maybe, you need it explained a little differently to really understand the difference. If that sounds like you, read on, my friend!

Laid Versus Lain

Before we get into the problem of tenses, let’s sort out the first problem, which involves knowing when to use laid and when to use lain.

Laid

This image shows a blanket and a book laying on the couch. Laid is used for inanimate things like coats, blankets, papers, and scarves. If you’re a grammarian, you might say the word laid always “takes an object” in the sentence. Laid is used when a living being places a nonliving thing somewhere. 

That might sound complicated, but it’s not. Check out the following examples!

  1. Elephant laid the coat on the sofa. 
  2. Piggy laid a book on the table. 

Notice how, in each case, the word laid is acting on something (the coat, the book)? That’s what laid does! It acts on an object! 

Lain

This imagine shows a mother and her three children lying on the floor and smiling.Lain is used for living beings who are taking the action themselves. (Also, lain is always used in conjunction with the words have or has.) 

  1. Elephant had lain down on the floor in exhaustion.
  2. Piggy has lain down next to him on occasion. 

A Brief Review of Tenses

There are several tenses and participles that we need to be familiar with for this discussion to be helpful. I will briefly discuss each and give you examples! 

Present Tense

We use present tense when something is happening right now. The base form of the verb is used. 

Example:

  1. Elephant eats salad and laughs.
  2. Piggy drinks water and walks four miles.
  3. Pigeon lies on the floor and frowns. 
  4. Please eat your food, Piggy. 

Present Participle

The present participle is used when something is happing now or is in a constant state of happening. We make verbs into their present participle forms by adding -ing

Examples: 

  1. Elephant is eating salad and laughing.
  2. Piggy is drinking water and walking four miles.
  3. Pigeon was lying on the floor and frowning. 
  4. Lying on the floor is a great way to stretch your back. 

Past Tense

When using past tense, we specify something that already happened. Regular verbs end in -ed but irregular verbs (such as lie, lay, lain) can end in a variety of ways—which certainly adds to the confusion!

Example:

  1. Elephant ate salad and laughed. 
  2. Piggy drank water and walked four miles.
  3. Pigeon lay on the couch and frowned all day. 

The trick here is to remember that if you are using -ed for other verbs in the sentence, you should be using lay.

Past Participle

The past participle is easy to spot because it is always preceded by has or had

Example: 

  1. Elephant has eaten salad and laughed.
  2. Piggy had drunk water and walked four miles.
  3. Pigeon had lain on the couch and frown all day. 

Summary!

Lie, lying, lay, lain. (Living beings taking action on their own!)

  1. I lie here.
  2. Lie down and sleep, my love.
  3. I will lie here for a long time.
  4. I am lying here.
  5. Was she lying there.
  6. He lay down on the soft mattress and slept. 
  7. She had lain in the street for hours before he found her.

lay, laying, laid, laid. (Inanimate objects being placed onto a surface.)

  1. lay that paper down, please.
  2. I will lay that book lay soon.
  3. She laid the cord on the bench.
  4. She had laid the cord on the bench. 

 Lie, lying, lied, lied. (To tell an untruth.)

  1. I will lie to him tonight.
  2. He is lying to her.
  3. He lied to her.
  4. She had lied to him. 

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Posted in Grammar & Usage Quick Tips.