These verbs are the toughest words in the English language to master, probably because they are so much alike. And the forms sometimes show up in one of the other verbs . . . so how are we to know?
Also, we hear them misused all the time, but we don’t realize it. We figure if she’s so smart and says “I laid down,” she must be right. Right? NO. Completely wrong.
Something I always tell my American Grammar workshop students: If you’re not sure about these, use a synonym. There is NO requirement to actually use these words when writing or speaking, so using a synonym is often a smart choice.
So, how do you know which to use if you want to?
This is my New Year’s gift to you: the three verbs, two of which start out exactly the same, and their tenses.
To Lie: to recline; to be in a prone position
I lie down every afternoon for a nap.
I lay down earlier.
I am lying down right now.
I was lying down earlier.
I will lie down later.
I have/had lain down all night.
To Lay: to put something somewhere
I always lay the book on the table after reading it.
I laid the book on the table.
I am laying the book on the table.
I was laying the book on the table when you called.
I will lay the book on the table.
I have/had laid the book on the table.
To Lie: to tell an untruth
I do not lie a lot.
I lied earlier.
I am not lying now.
I was not lying earlier when we talked.
I will not lie to you.
I have/had lied a few times.
Seriously, if you cannot imagine saying “I have lain down all night,” just tell folks you slept well. They’ll understand.