Question: Is “lay” used correctly in this cartoon? Answer below.

You'll lay an egg if you don't lie down
     In general, irregular verbs are troublesome to learn. Regular verbs create their past and past participle forms by adding “d” or “ed” to the stem of their infinitives (love, loved, loved), but irregular verbs create past and past participle forms by altering their stems in unpredictable ways.

      A number of common irregular verbs give people trouble, particularly:

dive, drown, fly, hang, lead, prove, sit, set and shrink.

     But lie and lay seem to give people more difficulty than do all the other irregular verbs combined. Here's why: The past tense form of lie is lay, so it's indistinguishable from lay in the present tense except in usage. (Sit and set, probably the irregular verbs that give people the most trouble next to lie and lay, for example, have no parts in common. It's sit, sat and sat but set, set, set.)

     The principal parts (most-common verb forms) of lie are:

lie (present,) lay (past) and lain (past participle).

     The principal parts of lay are:

lay (present), laid (past) and laid (past participle).

     As an aid in choosing the correct verb forms, remember that lie means to recline, whereas lay means to place something, to put something on something.

     • Lie means that the actor (subject) is doing something to himself or herself. It's what grammarians call a complete verb. When accompanied by subjects, complete verbs tell the whole story.
     • Lay, on the other hand, means that the subject is acting on something or someone else; therefore, it requires a complement to make sense. Thus lay always takes a direct object. Lie never does.

     More on “lie”: In its simplest (command) form, when the you is implied, lie is a sentence all by itself. If you tell your dog, “Lie,” as in “(You) lie (down),” that's a complete sentence. (The same is true, by the way, of sit.) In written material, we generally use down with lie when we mean to recline not because down is needed grammatically but because we wish to distinguish from the regular verb lie, meaning to tell an untruth (as in lie, lied, lied).

     Tip: Always remember that lay is a transitive verb and requires a direct object. (A transitive verb acts as a conveyor belt, transmitting action or influence from the subject to the object.) The common saying, “Let's lay out in the sun,” is not only incorrect grammatically, it suggests a public promiscuity that's frowned on even in this age of sexual permissiveness because you're implying the existence of a direct object of lay: “Let's lay (her/him?) out in the sun.” Not that there's anything wrong with THAT! It's just ungrammatical unless you're talking about sex.

Correct Usage:

Present tense: I lie down on my bed to rest my weary bones.
Past tense: Yesterday, I lay there thinking about what I had to do during the day.
Past participle: But I remembered that I had lain there all morning one day last week.

Present tense: As I walk past, I lay the tools on the workbench.
Past tense: As I walked past, I laid the tools on the workbench. And: I laid an egg in class when I tried to tell that joke.
Past participle: . . . I had laid the tools on the workbench.

     Here's an easy way to get it right — every time — without remembering all that gobbleygook above.
     When you bump into a lie-lay conundrum — when you aren't absolutely, 110 percent sure — do this quick little exercise.*
     Write these six words — “lie, lay, lain” (to recline); then beside or below them — “lay, laid, laid” (to place or put down).
     When students do that (I see it on the sides of their quizzes), they never — underline “never”— get it wrong.
      Simple, but it works. I call it the Michiko Sato rule.

The Michiko Sato Rule

     I call this “The Michiko Sato Rule” because she invented that quick little way to make sure she always got it right in quizzes and exercises (and life).
    When Michiko, who is now married and a mother living in Tokyo, was a student here, she would always write six words — three atop the other three — on her quizzes and exercises (we did 'em on paper then).

Lie Lay Lain
Lay Laid Laid

     And she never got 'em wrong. Never!
     I, therefore, being the smart guy that I am, developed the theory that if it worked for a student whose first language was Japanese, it would work for everyone. Give it a try.

     Answer to “Zits” question: Oh, it should be “lie” as in “recline”; otherwise, he'd be putting “low” somewhere or %@#&-ing it.

Updated Oct. 4, 2012