Grammar Fail: Lying or Sitting


There are four verbs that cause more people to stumble than any other: lie/lay and sit/set. (I confess—these are pet peeves of mine). But they don’t have to be a mystery if you use my simple method for remembering how to use each.

First, let’s talk verbs—specifically, transitive versus intransitive. Sounds scary? Well, it’s not too horrible. Transitive simply means that the sentence has a subject (the noun doing something) and a direct object (what the noun is doing that action to). A transitive sentence would be this:

I burned my eyebrows.

The subject (foolish me) did something to the direct object (my former eyebrows).

Intransitive verbs don’t have a direct object:

My eyebrows melted.

In this sentence, the subject (crispy eyebrows) are not acting on anything. They simply have an action. (And yes, I did actually burn off my eyebrows once.)

With me? Good. Once you understand that difference, you know how to use lie or lay, sit or set. Why? Because lay and set are transitive (have a direct object) and lie and sit are intransitive (no direct object).

I lie down. [no direct object]

But

He lays his keys on the table. [direct object = keys]

Or

She set the WiiFit balance board on the floor. [direct object = WiiFit balance board]

But

She sat on the floor. [no direct object]

There are some trickier ones (and some exceptions we won’t discuss here). So, watch out. Try this one:

Now I lay me down to sleep. [direct object = me, though this is a rare use]

Or

Set your bottom in that chair. [direct object = bottom (I call this the parent/teacher use of set)]

Finally, remember the different forms of each verb.

lie, lay, lain

lay, laid, laid

sit, sat, sat

set, set, set

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