Like many fine grammatical distinctions, the discrete uses of “lie” and “lay” as well as of “who” and “whom” are disappearing from the language. There are those of us, however—call us pedants if you wish—who cling to the niceties of the English language. With this in mind, I shall try to clarify the usages of these words.


To put it simply: “lay” is a transitive verb and “lie” is an intransitive verb. (Not to be confused with the noun or verb “lie”, meaning a prevarication or to prevaricate.

I have found that terms like “transitive” and “intransitive” leave most people under the age of fifty scratching their heads, allow me to explain. A transitive verb is an action word that takes a direct object. In other words, it is a word that denotes an action performed directly upon an object, be that a person, place, or thing (a noun). An intransitive verb does not take a direct object.

Hence: To “lie down” implies an action sufficient unto itself. “His missing overcoat lies on the chair.” To “lay something down” implies an action performed upon an object (“something”). “Please lay your coat upon the chair.”  Simple, eh?

The problem arises in the past tense. The past tense of “lie” is “lay”. “Yesterday, his overcoat lay on the chair.” The past tense of “lay” is “laid”. “Yesterday, he laid his overcoat on the chair.”

The past participles of these troublesome verbs are “lain” and “laid”. “His overcoat has often lain on the chair.” “He has often laid his overcoat on the chair.”

Here’s a simple diagram:

Transitive Intransitive
Present tense lay lie
Past tense laid lay
Past participle laid lain

And another set of examples:

Now, I lay the book upon the table. (I am laying the book upon the table.)

Today, the book lies on the table. (The book is lying on the table.) [Note the spelling change.]

Yesterday, I laid a book upon the table.

Yesterday, a book lay on the table.

In the past, I have often laid my books upon the table.

In the past, several books have lain on the table.

Try making up some sentences of your own, remembering that “lay” is also used as a noun, as in “The lay of the land” or “A good lay.”

Don’t get confused by the bedtime prayer: Now I lay me down to sleep … “. Simple enough. Here “lay” is the transitive verb because “me” is the object of the laying. This sentence means the same thing: Now I lie down to sleep. It’s just not as poetic.


Now that you understand the difference between transitive and intransitive, you can easily understand “direct object.” “Whom” is always a direct object and “who” isn’t. (Note: “Whom” becomes an indirect object when combined with “to” in a prepositional phrase.)

Here are some examples:

Who is that person to whom you were speaking? (“whom” is the object of the preposition “to”.)

To whom should I address my letter?

Whom did the dog bite? (The dog bit whom?)

Who bit the dog?

It can become confusing when “who” or “whom” or “whoever” or “whomever” are used in subordinate clauses. For example:

Please give this note to whoever answers the door. (“whoever” is the subject of the clause “whoever answers the door” and the whole clause is the object of the preposition “to”.)

Please give this note to whomever. (“whomever” now stands alone as the object of the preposition.)

Who is it that we are going to visit?

Whom are we going to visit?

It just takes some practice. Of course, you are now permitted to make yourself obnoxious by correcting other people’s erroneous usage.

Another time, perhaps, we’ll tackle “like” and “as”.

The famous little book “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White is not only enlightening on these and other matters but also quite entertaining


About tdurrie

An aging radical with thoughts about society, education, arts, politics, and food.
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  1. Tom, did you learn all this at school?

  2. Tom Durrie says:

    I’m happy to see that someone is reading this stuff. Interestingly enough, grammar was one of the few things I enjoyed in elementary school. One reason was that we did a lot of sentence diagramming, and that was fun. At the same time, I come from a rather “wordy” family. My father kept little notebooks of words that he wanted to remember, and my mother was a great reader. (She used to read aloud to us.) My father and grandfather would talk politics for hours. Also, as an young opera fan, I developed an interest in languages. At around age 12, I was teaching myself Italian.

    My enthusiasm for grammar was more a part of my family background than how it was presented in school. For example, I was a disaster at arithmetic, and the poor grades I received in that subject merely confirmed what I had already learned: I am no good with numbers. I think I was in my thirties when I realized that arithmetic was actually very easy and even interesting.

    As for “who and whom”, “lie and lay”, I’ve always loved grammatical curiousities like these. (I don’t remember ever learning these specifics in school.) You know, I really like things that are orderly and, somehow, perfect. (Some things, that is.) Even as a kid, I was very interested in things like table settings, correct wine glasses, Latin pronunciation (I was an altar boy), etc.

    I’ve just started re-reading Frank Smith’s wonderful book: The Book of Learning and Forgetting. As he frequently repeats: “We learn from the people around us with whom we identify.”

    Here’s something interesting: Since English was not the first language of my mother’s family, they all spoke with accents of varying density, and correct English grammar was not a strong point. Why then, from the earliest age, did I speak like my father’s family? They were from New England and were very articulate and grammatically correct. Even though I spent most of my early childhood with my mother, and certainly learned many habits and beliefs from her, when it came to language I saw myself as “just like” my father’s family, not hers.

    Finally, let me ask: How and why do we learn what we do?

  3. Hi, Tom:

    Excellent grammar lesson, thank you.

    I still have one confusion regarding “lie” and “lay”: when I “lay claim” to something, am I doing it transitively or intransitively? That is, am I laying down claim for it, or am I simply lying down while making the claim?

    If the former, as I suspect, then would the past tense be that “I had laid claim?”

    Your humble pupil,

  4. Tom Durrie says:

    Please excuse the very tardy reply. You are quite correct. “Claim: is the object of “lay” making it a transitive verb. You could as well, and perhaps more clearly, say “I lay a claim”. Doesn’t this mean a claim to a piece of land?

  5. Thank you, Tom. That makes sense. Oh, right, I guess the expression would have started out as claiming land. Seems so obvious once you point it out.

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