Via this column, we’ll explore one grammar rule each week. If you have a grammar question you’d like me to address, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to answer it.
Chicken Little is the central character in a timeless children’s story that almost everyone knows. There are many versions of the folk tale, but most begin with an acorn falling on Chicken Little’s head and her resulting belief that the sky is falling.
While she’s running around like her head is cut off, the villain of this tale, Foxy Loxy, tells Chicken Little to go his lair and put her feet up. But when she gets there, in her consternation, she can’t remember whether she was told to lay down or lie down, illustrating the common dilemma English speakers have when choosing between these two verbs.
“Lay” is used when the subject acts on something else, so Chicken Little should lay down her head.
- Whenever Chicken Little gets upset, she lays an egg.
- To calm down, she lays her head on a pillow.
“Lie” is used when the subject is doing something to his or herself, so Chicken Little should lie down and catch her breath.
- Lying there, Chicken Little dreams of a place with sound ceilings.
- But if the sky is really falling, there’s no time to lie down.
Technically, “lie” means to recline or be situated, and “lay” means to put, place or prepare.
But both actions result in a reclined position. It’s a confusing rule because the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” To illustrate:
- Chicken Little lies down in Foxy Loxy’s lair. (present)
- Chicken Little lay down in Foxy Loxy’s lair yesterday. (past)
In both cases, Chicken Little is acting upon herself.
The past tense of “lay” is “laid.” So you could say:
- Chicken Little lays an egg. (present)
- Chicken Little laid an egg yesterday. (past)
In both cases, Chicken Little is acting upon something else (the egg).
Got it? Then you can answer this question: does Chicken Little lay down to lie eggs, or lie down to lay eggs?
Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.