I have become increasingly appalled at the near-universal ignorance of how to use “lie” and “lay” properly. Although the verb meaning “to recline” is similar in both sound and spelling to the verb “to tell a falsehood,” that does not give the English-speaking populace carte blanche to use “lay” in all tenses and on all occasions. Every time I hear someone say “I lay down for a nap,” I want to ask, “You lay down what? Carpet, tile, or sod?” because the verb “lay” requires an object to receive that action – be it flooring, roofing, or rolls of grass.
Part of the problem is the familiar bedtime nursery rhyme which has embedded the phrase “Now I lay me down to sleep” into many people’s memory. However, notice that in this case there is the word “me” as the receiver of the action – the speaker is talking about laying his or her body down on the bed. This is an archaic style that we don’t use anymore. Unless, of course, you’re schizophrenic and habitually refer to your own person as a separate entity.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain is to show some examples (fictitious characters courtesy of “Person of Interest”):
lie – to recline, to lie down
Bear wanted to lie down on Reese’s shirt.
Bear lies on Reese’s shirt every day now.
Bear is lying on Reese’s shirt in this photo.
Bear was lying on Reese’s shirt when he heard Reese’s voice.
Bear has been lying on Reese’s shirt for a long time.
Bear lay on Reese’s shirt a long time before getting up.
Bear has lain on Reese’s shirt until it smells more like Bear than Reese.
lay – to set out, to spread, to cover with something
Reese is going to lay carpet on his next undercover assignment.
Reese lays carpet like a professional installer.
Reese is laying carpet in my bedroom in my dreams.
Reese was laying carpet when Finch called him.
Reese has been laying carpet ever since his part-time job in college.
Reese laid the carpet while observing their new Number.
Reese has laid carpet so many times that he is now an expert.
lie – to tell a falsehood or untruth, to deceive
Finch is going to lie to the detective about his identity.
Finch lies like a veteran undercover agent.
Finch is lying to the detective in the scene where he says his name is Norman Burdett.
Finch was lying to the detective when he said his name was Norman Burdett.
Finch has been lying about his identity for a long time.
Finch lied through his teeth about not knowing the man in the ski mask.
Finch has lied about his identity so often that Reese still doesn’t know his real name.
I hope this lays any questions you might have had to rest. And, speaking of rest, I think I’ll go lie down for a nap. Really. I’m not lying!