Have you ever hesitated, unsure whether you should write lay or lie, laid or lied? I have, dozens of times. But after thinking a little, I always know the right word to use. And it’s all thanks to the excerpt below.
This explanation solved my problem with these verbs. And it will solve yours.
There are probably no more confusing words in our language than lie and lay. If you have any trouble with them (most people do), there is only one thing to do.
Give them a few minutes of concentrated, intelligent attention, and learn what distinguishes one from the other. There isn’t any easy, magic formula to apply.
Nor is there anything exceptionally difficult about these words.
Lay means to put something down. Lay must always take an object.
The principal parts of lay are:
Present: “I lay (or am laying) the book on the shelf. Past: “I laid the book on the shelf.” Present perfect: “I have laid the book on the shelf.”
Lie means to recline.
The principal parts of lie are:
Present: “I lie (or am lying) on the sofa. Past: “I lay on the sofa.” Present perfect: “I have lain on the sofa.”
Lie also means to tell an untruth.
The principal parts of lie (to tell an untruth) are:
Present: “I never lie.” Past: “I lied when I told you I was ill.” Present perfect: “I have never lied before.”
Right and Wrong
I lied in bed.
(If you did, then you are a horizontal liar!) Actually, of course, you lay (past tense) in bed.
Hens lay eggs.
(That’s correct — biologically and gramatically.)
I have laid in bed.
No — you have lain in bed (present perfect).
Lay down, Fido.
Fido is a good grammarian, so he will lie down instead.
(From A New Guide to Better Writing, by Rudolf Flesch and A. H. Lass)