The late William Safire once wrote a New York Times column on the subject of lay v. lie after he had himself begun a sentence this way: “Another reason I laid low was…” Readers wrote in to straighten him out. “You have committed the most common grammatical error in the English language,” wrote Marian Mumford Brown of Orleans, Massachusetts, ‘using laid as the past tense of the verb lie.’”
What follows is a gross paraphrase of the column, which was also reprinted in Safire’s book Watching My Language (New York: Random House, 1997).
The first thing to understand about the difference of the two words has to do with meaning: To lie is “to recline,” while to lay is “to put, place.”
But the two verbs also differ in that lie is intransitive, and lay is transitive. Lie does not take an object, though it can take adverbs (I lie low.) Lay takes an object (I lay my hands on a villain).
So far so good. But things always get complicated when we use these two verbs in different time frames. The proper tense conjugation of lie, is lie (present tense), lay (past tense), have lain (perfect tense). (I lie low today, I lay low yesterday, I have lain low for weeks now).
The proper conjugation of lay, is lay, laid, have laid. (Today I lay my hands on a villain, yesterday I laid my hands on him, I have laid my hands on him more than once.)
Let’s give Safire a break and concede that this is indeed confusing. And that wasn’t the only time the Times language maven committed the error. He had once predicted, on television, that Mikhail S. Gorbachev would “lay there in the weeds, and he’ll try to make a comeback.” “When you lie in the weeds,” Safire wrote later, after viewers had upbraided him, “you are not committing any action against the weeds.”