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I often confuse lay and laid. For instance, in selecting the appropriate word in these contexts:

She lay/laid a hand on his arm.
He lay/laid across the bench lazily.
We lay/laid down our heavy load.

Is there a common mnemonic for remembering which to use, and when?

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The key here is recognizing that there are two verbs you are confusing yourself with.

The first verb has a present tense form of lie. This is an active verb on the person performing it. For example: I lie on the couch after work every day. The past tense version of the verb is lay. Example: I lay in bed all day yesterday.

The other verb has a present tense form of lay. This is a verb describing the action of placing something on a surface. For example: Please lay the book on the table. The past tense version of this verb is laid. Example: He laid the towel on the bench.

In short, first make sure you know which verb you're looking for, and then use the correct tense.

  • 2
    Lying being the action of placing oneself on a surface further enhances the confusion. No lie! – Nikana Reklawyks Jan 25 '13 at 21:24
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This is very tricky as it involves two separate but very closely related verbs, to lay and to lie, that share a common form—i.e. lay is both the present tense form of to lay and the past tense form of to lie.

The primary difference between to lay and to lie is that to lay is transitive, meaning it takes a direct object, while to lie is intransitive and does not take an object. The verbs have the following forms: to lay—lay (present tense), laid (past tense), laid (past participle), and laying (present participle); and to lie—lie (present tense), lay (past tense),lain (past participle), and lying (present participle).

So using that information, given that all three are in the simple past tense, I can tell that number one is laid, which has the direct object of a hand, and numbers two and three are lay, which have no object.

Here's where you may be getting tripped up: laid is a form of to lay, and lay, in the simple past, is a form of to lie. In other words, the word lay in numbers two and three is not connected to the verb to lay.

As long as you know what tense the examples are in, it's simply a matter of whether or not the verb has a direct object.

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