We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.
Today, we’re going to pick on a few verbs that seem to give writers—and speakers—a hard time. I don’t know why lie, lay, sit and set cause so much trouble, but they do. My own daughter, who is one of the most intelligent and best-educated people I know (no pride in that statement) suggested this topic.
Reach back into the far reaches of your mind. No, just a little further back. There it is. Sixth or seventh or eighth grade English. Remember when your teacher said something about transitive and intransitive verbs?
Oh, you vaguely remember, but you thought she was speaking Greek? Or maybe you thought transitive had to do with cross-dressing. Actually, your teacher was trying to tell you something important. Let’s see if we can put it back together.
If you look in wikipedia, you can find monotransitive and ditransitive and tritransitive verbs, but, as my daughter told my dad when she was two years old and he was trying to get her to say Popocatepetl, “Grandad, that’s ridickious.” No sense getting into that kind of confusion.
As long as we don’t get ridickious with it, it’s really pretty simple. A transitive verb has a direct object, and an intransitive verb doesn’t. You don’t remember exactly what a direct object is? You were probably doing like I did in my 11th grade American history class—looking out the window to watch the girls in their gym shorts. Oh, darn. I wasn’t going to tell about that.
Anyway, if I watched the girls in their gym shorts, girls would be a direct object. They were not only the object of the sentence, but also of my attention and my dreams. Oops. There I go again. Anyhow, if girls is the direct object, then watched must be a transitive verb.
All this yakking, and I haven’t said anything about lie, lay, sit or set. So let’s get to it.
Lie is an intransitive verb meaning to recline. It does not take an object. I can lie, but I can’t lie an egg or a blog or a truck. No objects allowed.
Lay, on the other hand, is a transitive verb meaning to put or to place. I can lay the book on the table, or I can lay bricks to make a wall, but I can’t lay down—unless I get the down from a duck’s back and lay it somewhere.
See the difference? If I’m merely reclining, I am lying. But if I’m placing something somewhere, I’m laying it. Pretty simple, actually, n’est pas?
Well, the great minds who put the English language together didn’t want it to be too simple, so they played hob with the conjugation of these verbs. No, conjugation has nothing to do with conjugal visits—at least not for this purpose. Conjugation has to do with tenses.
Oh, all right, that kind of conjugation can relieve tension, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about present tense (what is happening now), past tense (what happened yesterday) and past participle (what has happened more than once in the past).
Conjugating “to lay” isn’t so bad. The present tense is lay—I lay the pencil on the desk when I finish with it. The past tense is laid—I laid the pencil on the desk awhile ago when I finished the crossword puzzle. The past participle also happens to be laid—I have laid the pencil on the desk every day before going home from work. Slightly confusing for the past tense and the past participle to be the same, but that happens with a lot of verbs.
The confusion comes in with conjugating “to lie”. The present tense is lie—I lie in my recliner when I want to take a nap. No problem there. But (here we go) the past tense of “to lie” is lay—I lay in the recliner for an hour yesterday afternoon. As I said, they didn’t want English to be too easy, but you can handle that. And the past participle of “to lie” sounds almost silly. It’s lain—I’ve lain in bed night after night tossing and turning.
I didn’t make all this up. It’s just the way it is.
Now, if you’ve grasped lie and lay, then sit and set will be simple. Set is transitive, like lay, and sit is intransitive, like lie. You can set an object, but you can’t sit one.
They’re also easier to conjugate. Sit‘s past tense and past participle are both sat. Set‘s past tense and past participle are both set. What could be simpler. I think the folks who made up lie and lay felt sorry for us when they got to sit and set.
Have I cleared this up or stirred up the mud at the bottom of the water? I’d take more time to explain this, but the girls’ gym class is over, and I’m . . .
David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of that career was spent in Texas, but for a few years he traveled many other states. He started writing about 20 years ago, and has six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. He has just e-pubbed his devotional, Heaven Sent: 67 Stories of Godly Thoughts and Inspiration (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008CRL82M). His new fiction work—a series of novellas set during the period from 1860 to 1880 is underway. The first one is in the editing process, and he’s currently writing the second one.
Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx