Like your mother always said, people judge you by how you look and speak, and if you mispronounce words or make grammar mistakes, lots of people (including your prospective boss, or that really cute guy at Starbucks) may assume that you are poorly educated (and possibly, just not very smart.)
When you submit a manuscript to an editor, the smallest, most-trivial grammar mistake can sink your boat before the prospective publisher even has a chance to appreciate what a great, historically-accurate sailing adventure you wrote. Don’t get caught in a storm with your sails down. Know the rules of grammar and writing (Strunk & White is a great reference) and proofread, proofread, proofread. (Did I mention how important it is to proofread?)
One of my personal grammatical Bozo-buttons is the correct usage of the verbs “to lay” and “to lie.” If an author gets it wrong, I stop reading (petty, but honest.) If I pick up a preview of a self-published book (which I do a lot) and come upon “The evil captain Bluebeard spied the exhausted maiden laying on the poop deck,” I tap the delete button. What is she laying?? An egg?? The suspension of disbelief is broken, and I’m done.
Life is too short to drink lite beer or read books with bad grammar.
So, in the interest of cutting down on the number of potentially-good novels being torpedoed by bad grammar (while improving the opportunities to drink dark beer while reading a well-written book), I offer: how to choose between “to lay” and “to lie” and not end up with egg on your face.
Lay means to put something down (usually gently). Use the verb lay when your hero (the subject) is acting on another doohickey (the direct object). Dinosaurs lay eggs in a basket. Police lay donuts on the dashboard. Pirates lay booty under their mattress.
Lie is a bit tricker because the verb can mean “to tell an untruth” or “to recline,” but here’s a rule of thumb that takes advantage of the confusion: Only people lie. Although that’s not always true (in either the untruth OR recline sense), it may help you to make the right choice: If you do it to yourself, then use lie. Gnomes lie down for a long winter’s nap. Dogs lie in smelly mud (more like roll, but you get the idea). A maiden lies exhausted on the poop deck. (When you visit the doctor for your yearly check-up, she should ask you to “lie down on the exam table” (lay never goes with down unless you have something in your hand: “lay down your arms, give up the fight…”)
Okay, you say, that doesn’t sound too tough. Well, I lied to you.
Here’s the real poop: the past tense spelling of the verb “to lie” is “lay.” Yep, you read it right. Tonight, I plan to lie down in the coffin; yesterday, I lay down for only 30 minutes. In the past week, I have lain down only twice. That’s where the confusion starts (and spreads like an emaciated vampire with 500 SPF sunscreen.) In order to get it right, you have to memorize the correct forms (conjugations) of the verbs AND know when to use them. Here’s the full disclosure:
|To Lay||lay||laid||(have) laid||laying|
|To Lie||lie||lay||(have) lain||lying|
1) Topless French women like to lie on the beach. Yesterday, they lay on the beach all day. I wish I had lain on the beach with them. (I see them lying on the beach every day.)
2) The dinosaur did not lay an egg today. Dinosaurs have not laid eggs for millennia. Maybe if they had laid more eggs the first time around, there would be more dinosaurs now. (No one has ever seen dinosaurs laying eggs.)
(If you’re just planning to lie through your teeth, no worries: it’s lie, lied, lying all the way to jail.)
Remember, only people lie, and you’ll be on your way to getting published (and if all else fails, there’s always the cute guy at Starbucks; maybe you could tell him about lie and lay and see what he knows about getting laid?)