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To Lie Or To Lay: Confusing Verbs In English — Dr Ganiu Bamgbose





The conjugation of some verbs could prove perplexing for many a speaker of English. For specifics, the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ are examples that innumerable users of English find it difficult to apply in both spoken and written communications. On account of that, this piece will demystify the grey areas occasioned by the aforementioned verbs and more.

Between these verbs, the more ambiguous in its usage is ‘lie’, which could serve as a verb and a noun. As a verb, its first meaning is: to be in or move into a horizontal position on a surface. When deployed in the aforementioned circumstances, ‘lay’, ‘lain’ and ‘lying’ are its past tense, past participle and progressive tense, correspondingly, as represented below:
1. She lays on her side at night (wrong).
She lies on her side at night (correct; present tense).
2. The boy laid on the beach and dozed off (wrong).
The boy lay on the beach and dozed off (correct; past tense).
3. Kunle has laid on the floor for three hours (wrong).
Kunle has lain on the floor for three hours (correct; past participle).
4. Tolu was laying on her stomach (wrong).
Tolu was lying on her stomach (correct; progressive tense).
Another function of lie, with its conjugation as lay, lain and lying, borders on places, positions and/or directions. This standpoint can be illustrated in the following ways:
5. The river lies thirty kilometres to the south (direction).
6. Mary Taylor’s remains were lain here (place).
7. Last season, Manchester United lay third in the English Premier League final standings (position).
8. There is a pair of shoes lying on the bottom shelf (position).
9. The encyclopedia had lain open on the chair before Mistura entered the room (position).
Within the same conjugation of lie (lay, lain, lying), the verb is used to discuss what is ahead and to talk about accepting responsibility or blame, as in:
10. Some tasks still lie ahead of us.
11. Who does the blame lie with?


When the meaning of lie changes to saying or writing something that is bogus or misleading, in order to deceive someone, the conjugation becomes lied (past tense), lied (past participle) and lying (continuous tense):

12. He lies every day.
13. She has lied about her age on several occasions.

Next to the rationalisations above, ‘lay’ has ‘laid’ (past tense and past participle) and ‘laying’ (continuous tense) as its derivatives. Citing the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, its first meaning is ‘to put something in especially a flat horizontal position, usually carefully or for a specific purpose. This function is concisely exemplified hereunder:
14. She would lay the baby carefully and sneak out of the room.
15. She laid the baby carefully before sneaking out of the room.
16. The bricklayers had laid the foundation of the duplex before Paul departed for London.
Other uses of ‘lay’ include: to produce eggs from out of the body, to have sex with someone, and to express a claim.
17. Fowls lay eggs.
18. The turkeys have laid some eggs.
19. You got laid with whom?
20. Do not lay the blame on Jide.
With that said, some idiomatic expressions concerning the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ are:
21. Shola, let the sleeping dog lie (wrong).
Shola, let sleeping dogs lie (correct).
22. As you lay your bed, so you will lie on it (wrong).
You have made your bed, and you must lie on/in it (correct).
23. Mr Philips shall lay bare the truth in tomorrow’s interview.
24. The blame for the dilapidated infrastructure was laid at the governor’s door.
Equally worthy of assessment is the deployment of ‘being’ and ‘been’. ‘Being’, on the one hand, is the progressive tense of ‘be’. In consequence, it co-occurs with ‘am’, ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘was’ or ‘were’. For the most part, too, it is deployed in the passive voice.
25. Rice is being eaten by Kolawole.
26. The documents are being scanned.
27. John was being tailed by an unkempt man.
28. The students were being punished by their teachers.
Moreover, it bears emphasising that ‘being’ can succeed the preposition, ‘upon’.
29. Upon being admonished by his uncle, Desmond promised to turn over a new leaf.
As an aside, ‘being’ can be deployed as a conventional noun (for instance, ‘human being’) or a gerund (a verb-like noun).

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30. Tolu is an empathetic being.
31. The United States of America came into being in 1776.
32. When will you stop being an indolent child (as a gerund)?
33. The incident was caused by his being willfully ignorant (as a gerund).

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On the other hand, ‘been’ is the past participial form of ‘be’. It, therefore, follows that ‘been’ collocates with ‘has’, ‘have’, ‘had’ or ‘having’.
34. Dolapo has been to Gatwick Airport several times.
35. I have been reading for seven hours.
36. They had been cohabiting before they parted company.
37 Having been reprimanded by his uncle, Gbenga promised to turn over a new leaf.
38. By next week, I will have been to the University of Ibadan twice.
Do not attempt to deploy ‘been’ as a noun!

To round off, verbs are really central to the construction of meanings in the English language. By reason of this, the mastery of their forms and functions is a prerequisite for fluency.
© 2020 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB)

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