At Last, Lie/Lay Explained

by Cherie Tucker

These two verbs cause way too much trouble.  Here’s how they work:

LIE describes something at rest.  You cannot do this word to anything.    

LAY describes the action of putting something down  You do this to something.

Here are the tenses, present, past, and the past and present participles that require a helper verb: 

Lie    Lie down.

Lay     Lay that down.

Lay   He lay there sobbing.

Laid    He laid his gun down. 

Lain  The manuscript had lain there for years. Laid    They have finally laid the tile.

Lying He leaves his  towels lying on the floor. Laying He’slaying it on so thick.

Now here’s a little story to help you see how this all plays out.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff
(With apologies to the Norwegian folk tellers)

Once upon a time in a village that lay beside a river there lived three Billy Goats Gruff.  Their home was a junkyard, and they spent the days eating whatever was lying on the ground:  old shoes, newspapers, car seats.  They thought nothing of it until one day a tiny bird flew by and perched on the junkyard fence.  

"Why do you eat that stuff that’s lying on the ground?" the bird asked them.

"What else is there?" replied the oldest.

"Why, just beyond the river that lies at the edge of town there is a field of blackberry vines, all you could eat," answered the bird.  Then he flew off to the nest where his mate had laid three tiny eggs just that morning.

The goats had heard of blackberry vines, but they’d never seen any, let alone tasted them.  "Let’s go, brothers," the excited goats said to one another, and they made ready to leave the junkyard forever.  What they didn’t know was that lying in wait under the bridge that crossed the river was the meanest, most horrible troll who had ever lived.  His own mother threw him out of the house years ago, saying she hoped never to lay eyes on him again.  Now he lived under the bridge where he lay that day, hoping lunch would come along soon.

"Are you sure you know where it’s at?" the middle billy goat asked his younger brother.

"Where it is," corrected the oldest, who had promised his mother he would look out for his brothers.

"Are you sure you know where it is?" the grateful brother repeated correctly this time.

"Yes, I’m sure.  I go out the gate and down the trail that lies in back of the junkyard," the youngest replied, eager to be off. "I’ll see you both on the other side."  And he was gone.  He soon saw the bridge that was the last thing that lay between him and the blackberry vines, but as he happily trotted across it, the troll jumped up from where he had lain in wait and seized the frightened billy goat.

"Hello, lunch!" bellowed the troll in a terrible voice.

"Oh, please, Mr. Troll," the little goat pleaded. "Please don’t eat me.  I’m nothing but skin and bones, but my brother is coming along right behind me, and he’s much bigger than I am."

The troll was hungry, but he could feel the bones of the little goat through his hide. Considering that this goat would hardly be more than a mouthful, he reluctantly laid him back on his tiny hooves and hoped he wasn’t making a mistake.  The goat scampered off before the troll could change his mind, and the troll climbed back under the bridge to lie in wait.  Laying his head on his beard, which he had to use as a pillow because he was so horrible no one would allow him into a store, he waited.  He didn’t have to lie there long before he heard hoofbeats above him—heavier this time.  He jumped up from where he lay and grabbed the unsuspecting billy goat.

"Hello, lunch," the troll chortled, happy the first little goat hadn’t tricked him.

"Oh, please, Mr. Troll, please don’t eat me. If you could just wait a minute or two longer, my big brother is coming along, and he is the biggest, juiciest, fattest billy goat in all the land.  I’m sure you’d like him better."

"Hmmm," pondered the troll.  "You aren’t very meaty at that."  And again reluctantly he laid the little goat back on his hooves and watched as he ran off to join his brother in the field that laybeyond the bridge.  Now the sun was shining brightly, and the 
Troll decided to lie on the bridge instead of under it.  It was a curving bridge, and he knew if he were to lie on the other side of the curve, he could see what was coming along the road without being seen.  It would be easier than climbing back under the bridge to lie down.  However, no sooner had he laindown and laid his head on his beard, than he fell fast asleep. Under the bridge it was cold and damp, so he could lie there all day without getting sleepy, but the warm wood and the hot sun put him right to sleep. He had not lain there very long when he heard a terrible voice saying, "Get out of my way!"

The troll looked up from where he lay into the eyes of the biggest, angriest billy goat he had ever seen, especially from this angle.  The goat had laid his ears back flat against his head and was lowering his considerable horns.

"Get out of my way," the goat thundered again and began to back up slowly.

The troll was frozen to the spot where he lay.  He tried to rise, but the goat was upon him, butting him into the air.  The troll sailed off the bridge, turned a somersault or two, and sank out of sight in the river.  The billy goat trotted off to join his brothers in the field where they live to this day, happily munching on delicious blackberry vines.

And the troll?  Well, the story goes that he lies there still on the bottom of the river, too frightened to come up for air. But that, as we’ve said before, could be a lie.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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