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‘Lay’ and ‘lie’

[9 Jan 2012] Sticklers know a lost cause when they hear one, and they certainly hear one with ‘laying’ and ‘lying’ because broadcasters and programme contributors routinely mix them up, using ‘lay’ in such expressions as ‘I was laying on the beach’. Traditional English requires ‘lie’ for lying down, ie ‘being at rest on a horizontal surface’ (and telling lies) and ‘lay’ for ‘putting down’, as in laying eggs.

So there was plenty of room for confusion in a newspaper report (Daily Mail, 3 March 2010) inevitably entitled ‘Murder most fowl’, which dealt with the killing of a fox by a cockerel and three hens. It happened at a henhouse in Basildon, Essex when the frightened chickens (c)luckily knocked over a small table, stunning the marauder and then pecking it to death.

Michelle Cordell, the householder told the Mail: ‘I went inside [the henhouse] and the fox was laying there. It’s like the revenge of the chickens.’ She surmised that the chief assailant was her aggressive cockerel, Dude.

So was the fox laying eggs in the henhouse? Clearly not. Had Ms Cordell consulted her shelf of grammar books before speaking to the Mail, she would have used ‘lying’. But it’s difficult because the two verbs overlap – eg, the past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’ – and the past participle of ‘lie’ is the unusual ‘lain’. 

Here are the main variations:

1. To lie (down): they lie and they are lying (present); they lay, they were lying, they have lain (past); they will lie (future). The verb is intransitive – it is not followed by a direct object. The command form is ‘lie’, so ‘Lie down here.’

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