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Introduction and Table of Contents

Were I but King of Anglophonia


How many tears have been shed by English teachers because of this one! Unfortunately, in English there are two verbs, lie and lay, with related meanings and related appearance and pronunciation but somewhat different meanings. To make matters worse, the simple past tense of lie is lay. It's all the fault of the Germans, but it's too late to do anything about it now. You'll just have to learn the difference.

Lay is a transitive verb. That is, it acts upon something. Lie is intransitive; it does not act on anything. Therefore, you lay the book down, but you lie down. In the first case, the verb is acting on something, the book. In the second, the verb does not act on anything. Don't be confused by the presence of the word down in both sentences. What counts is the presence of an object for the verb to act upon, in the first case, and the absence of such an object in the second case.

In the past tense, these examples become, "You laid the book down," and "You lay down."

So it makes no sense to say, "Tomorrow, I'm going to lay in bed all day." You could correctly say, "Tomorrow, I'm going to lie in bed all day." The day after tomorrow, you could correctly say, "Yesterday, I lay in bed all day." You could properly add, "And since I'm physically quite able to get out of bed, I am now disgusted with myself."

Queen Leonore's Addition

(And here she lays down her heavy crown and picks up a new black marker, with which she writes firmly upon the royal dry erase board.)

Most educated speakers of English are at least somewhat familiar with the infinitive, the simple and progressive present tenses, the simple past, and the present perfect of other, somewhat less tricky verbs. A few examples:

To buy, buys/is buying, bought, has bought.
To eat, eats/is eating, ate, has eaten.
To swim, swims/is swimming, swam, has swum.
To run, runs/is running, ran, has run.
To drink, drinks/is drinking, drank, has drunk.

However, you may wish to take notes on the following. If you do not, do not blame the queen if you continue to make mistakes when using these common verbs!

To lie = to recline. Your mnemonic (memory aid) can be the letter I in both verbs.

Present tense: "The dog lies/is lying in the sun."

Simple past: "Yesterday, the dog lay in the sun for two hours. "

Present perfect tense: Little Tommy, who has been tutored by the queen, remarks, "I have observed that the dog has lain outside in the hot sun for astonishing periods of time."

To lay = to place something on a surface, as in, "Beloved, I wish you would not lay your crown there." Your mnemonic can be the A in both verbs.

Present tenses: "He lays his books in the most inappropriate places." "Stop her! She is laying the magazine on the hot burner!"

Simple past: "He laid his aching head on the pillow."

Present perfect: "Why have you laid the magazines there?"

As King David remarked above, the complexities here in English arise from the similarly complex verbs in German, liegen (to lie) and legen (to lay). Those have principle parts that are still remarkably similar to their English counterparts: liegen, liegt, lag, hat gelegen, and legen, legt, legte, hat gelegt. The English verbs, once again, are: to lie, lies/is lying, lay, has lain, and to lay, lays/is laying, laid, has laid.

These verbs are not to be confused with the other English verb to lie, the one that means to tell a lie, something other than the truth:

To lie, lies/is lying, lied, has lied. Example: "This power-hungry administration has lied time and time again."

The German, in case you care, is: luegen, luegt, log, hat gelogen. Beispiel: "Die Deutschen fragen sich, warum der Affe in Washington so oft luegt." ("The Germans wonder why the monkey in Washington lies so often.")

And that's no lie!

Introduction and Table of Contents

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