Question: I can never keep straight the differences between lie and lay. No matter how hard I try to untangle the usage, I am consistently wrong. What can I do?
Answer: Don’t use it. Write around it.
Although I told you that its was the most common mistake in writing, my experience has shown that the most frequent mistake in usage in both speaking and writing is using lie, lay, lain (rest or recline) and lay, laid, laid (put or place) correctly.
Lie, lay, and lain and lay, laid, laid are often mishandled in the media, not to mention by most students and adults. Time after time, I hear the Action News reporters saying, “He was laying (lying) on the sidewalk seriously wounded” and “The house lays (lies) in ashes.” And several years ago I found it mishandled in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, one of the best edited newspapers around: “Twenty minutes later, the ordeal ended when the driver ran out of gas on a freeway off- ramp and laid (lay) down spread eagle on the ground.” (WSJ. Oct. 11, 2002.)
One trick that experienced writers have learned is to “write around” problems. Doesn’t sound right? Rewrite it to rid the sentence of problems. If you can’t straighten out lie, lay, lain (rest or recline) or lay, laid, laid (put or place), then either don’t use them or write around them. With the examples above, you might say, “The house is reduced to ashes.” “He was on the sidewalk, seriously wounded.” “Twenty minutes later, the ordeal ended when the driver ran out of gas on a freeway off ramp and surrendered to police.” If you’re not sure, write around it. Sometimes the rewritten version is better. Sometimes it is not as good as the original. At least your readers won't be distracted by a questionable usage and you won’t have language pundits criticizing your English.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what the correct expressions should be: “The house lies in ashes.” “He was lying on the sidewalk, seriously wounded.” “Twenty minutes later, the ordeal ended when the driver ran out of gas on a freeway off-ramp and lay down spread eagle on the ground.”
I don’t know if you’ll feel better about your problem with lie and lay on learning some facts from the history of the English language. When people find choosing between two usages difficult, they ultimately select one as the standard, which happened with thee, thou and you. I’m betting that lay, laid, laid (put or place) will eventually become standard—several centuries from now when people like me are not around to insist on the differences between the two.
All the best. RayS