English language users have long struggled with lie, meaning “to recline,” and lay, meaning “to put down.” This is in part because the past tense form of this lie is, well, lay and the past participles of the verbs are very similar.
It would help if the “to recline” lie were conjugated the same way as the “to tell a falsehood” lie: lie, lied, lied. But they’re not, so we struggle to try to keep lie and lay straight:
Another reason for the confusion is that lay is often used to mean “to recline.” In fact, prior to the 19th century, that usage was common and unremarkable. But from the 19th century on, we became aware of the “error” and taught people to correct it.
It’s again becoming the fashion to use lay to mean “to recline,” but it’s a slow change and plenty of people like to keep the distinction. Whether you do or not, you’re wise to know the difference, if only to know why you’re being criticized.
Many of the traditional English Christmas carols we hear at this time of year were written or translated during the 19th century and, thus, use lie and lay distinctly. If we compare some song lyrics to our conjugation table above, we, too, can learn to keep lie and lay separate.
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“How still we see thee lie”
We start with an easy one. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a rarity among the Christmas carols I reviewed for being in the present tense (“Joy to the World” is another, but it doesn’t lie or lay anything). With all the babies being put down and stories being told in the past tense, lay seems to overwhelm the list, but here we have a clear use of the present lie.
In the next stanza, we get “Why lies he in such mean estate / Where ox and ass are feeding,” referring to the baby Jesus reclining in the food trough (the manger). Because he’s reclining rather than putting something down, lies is the correct choice.
“The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head”
In “Away in a Manager,” the baby puts his head down. Because the song is in the past tense, we want the past tense form of lay: laid.
In the next line, we hear “The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay.” It might look wrong if you follow the lie/lay distinction. But remember that the song is in the past tense, so we need the past tense of lie, which is lay.
“The first Nowell the angels did say / Was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay”
If you heard the second line of “The First Nowell” in isolation, you might ask what the shepherds were putting down. But in context, you can see that the song is in the past tense, and we’re again dealing with that confusing form of lie. A later line in the song, “Right over the place where Jesus lay,” presents the same issue.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining”
We can tell that the lay we have in this line from “O Holy Night” is the past tense of lie because if the world were putting something down, we’d need lays.
In the second stanza, we find “the King of Kings lay thus in a lowly manger.” Lay belongs with King rather than Kings, so we can see that we’re still in the past tense (though the chorus is in the present). The baby is reclined, making lie’s past tense form the correct choice.
“See Him in a manger laid”
While the song “Angels We Have Heard on High” doesn’t specify who put the baby in the manger, someone did. We want the past tense of lay.
“What child is this, who, laid to rest, / On Mary’s lap is sleeping”
“What Child Is This?” contains a past participle, though the auxiliary was isn’t present. Without context or the auxiliary verb, we might wonder if the child put something down. But, no, someone put Jesus down on Mary’s lap, and he is now sleeping.
We also might wonder if the verb should be lain. Lain and laid are frequently confused, most likely because they sound so similar, but our table shows us laid is correct.
We know that older songs can be wonderful for showing us how life used to be lived. Now we know how observing the individual words and phrases can help us understand language better.
Happy holidays, everyone!
A version of this article originally published in December 2013 on Visual Thesaurus.