I’m sticking with my power song theme this week even after being accused of giving several co-workers an earworm with last week’s post (sorry, folks). Bon Jovi provides the soundtrack to this week’s post as I try to decipher the proper use of lay and lie (or I could go totally retro and use this song by The Thompson Twins, released 4 years prior to Bon Jovi’s song with the same title).

I think we can get the easy part out of the way first. If you tell an untruth, you’re telling a lie. If you told an untruth, you lied. If you’re really tired at the end of the day, you will lie down on the sofa. If I’m going to take this pile of magazines and put it somewhere, I’m going to lay them down on the table.

Quick tip: Lay = things; Lie = people

You will use lay if the action is being done to an object. “I lay my clothes out for work tomorrow morning so I don’t have to rush around as much.” Lay means “to put or set something down.”

Lie means “to be, to stay, or to assume rest in a horizontal position.” In most cases, the subject will be the one doing the lying. “I love to snag my favorite magazine and lie on the couch for an hour to read.”

Simple, right? Well, yes, as long as we’re dealing in the present tense.

The past tense of lie is lay. Here we go, back into the grammatical mine field. If it makes you feel any better, every resource I consulted on this subject offered some form of a chart to try to help you keep these different words straight and no one had an easy answer on how to remember it. I found this one helpful.

My best advice to you is to think first about who’s doing the action. If the subject is the one doing the action, use lie (and the subsequent past tense lay or past participle lain). If the object is the thing being set down, use lay (and the past tense and past participle laid).

Clear as mud, right?

Get your digital playlist and blame popular music for corrupting an already complicated grammatical quandary. Eric Clapton gave us “Lay Down Sally” (wrong – technically, it should be “Lie Down Sally,” but I’m not about to argue with Eric Clapton). Snow Patrol’s song Chasing Cars could be a grammatical quiz. Is this right or is this wrong?

If I lay here

If I just lay here

Would you lie with me and just forget the world

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at [email protected].