Where does the truth lie or lay with these two verbs?
My column on the correct use of lie and lay drew quite a response from readers. Remember, to lie is to assume a horizontal position. To lay is to place.
Dave writes, "Very entertaining. I wanted to lie down and laugh as I lay down the paper."
Richard writes, "Lulu Pepper, my junior high English teacher, used to tell us, 'If you find someone laying in a ditch, hand them an egg carton.'
"That was in the 1930s," Richard continues, "but I still feel a 'sharp pain in the ear' when I hear wrong usage."
Lulu Pepper? I would have loved to have met her.
Deb writes, "I know the lie/lay difference and try to use [both words] correctly. But what about lain? Is that still in use? While my command of English grammar is usually very good, I never have been clear on the lain/laid usage."
As you suspect, Deb, lain is not commonly used these days, but if you've ever gone to an English major party, you know things are warming up when people start discussing participles such as lain. Participles are verb forms used with auxiliary or helping verbs, as in "I had lain" and "I have laid."
Good dictionaries list the principal forms of a verb in this order: present, past, past participle and present participle. For lie, the forms are lie, lay, lain and lying. For lay, the forms are lay, laid, laid and laying. When variant forms are listed, as in dived or dove, the first is preferred.
So it should be "She had lain down 20 minutes before I laid her phone on her pillow."
If you think no one cares about the correct use of lie and lay, consider the following story from Tom:
"My father was on his deathbed at age 101. Hospice was there, administering morphine. Dad was sleeping most of the time, but woke up and wanted to stand up. After a few harrowing moments, he sat back down on the edge of his bed, exhausted. The nurse said, 'OK, Mr. Lockhart, now lay down.' Dad turned to her and said, 'It's lie down.' And with that he lay down, went to sleep and never regained consciousness."
Finally, Thomas asks about the proper use of lie and lay in golf terminology:
"It has to do with the number of shots a golfer has taken. When you are asked by your fellow golfer, 'What are you laying?' is that correct? Or [should it be] 'What do you lie?' "
It should be "What are you lying?" and "What do you lie?" just as when you count your strokes, you shouldn't lie.
Thomas concludes, "Now if you could only help me on that slice."
Sure. Try closing your club face a bit. If that fails and you feel like throwing your club, here's some advice from my dad, who was an excellent golfer: Don't throw your club overhand; you're likely to break it. Throw it sidearm. Then you won't have to lay down your money for a new one.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.