Lie vs. Lay, but first, a reminder: grammar is your friend.
A strong understanding and command of grammar will help your writing fade into the background so that your story can stay front and center, where it should be.
This column will cover two different common word usage issues.
I’ve found that the best way for me to remember which word to use is to come up with a slightly silly mnemonic device. Here are the ways I remember when to use lie vs. lay and when to use affect vs. effect.
Lie vs. Lay
Here’s the grammar nerd explanation: if you want to use the verb “lay,” you have to have an object to go with it. In other words, you have to lay something. You can’t just lay.
Unless, of course, you’re a chicken. Chickens do lay (eggs).
But if you write that someone is going to lay, they need to lay something (though it will probably not be eggs, unless you’re writing paranormal…).
EXAMPLE: “I’m going to go lie down,” she said, stifling a yawn.
This is correct; because you are using “lie” not “lay,” there is no object for the verb here. If you wanted to use lay instead, you could say “I’m going to go lay myself down,” so that you’d have “myself” as an object for “lay,” but that would sound incredibly awkward.
EXAMPLE: She leaned over to lay the baby gently into the crib.
This is also correct. Lay has an object: the baby.
In addition to the chickens, there’s one more way to differentiate between lie and lay. Substitute the word “put,” which is an equivalent for “lay.” If it works, you’re using the correct word! (I lay the dress on the bed. I put the dress on the bed.)
The complication on this one is that, of course, lay is also the past tense of lie. So “I lie down today,” but “I lay down yesterday.” Even if you’re not actually saying when in the past it was (in this case, yesterday), you should still be able to easily tell you’re in the past, and therefore be assured that “lay” is correct.
Affect vs. Effect
The grammar nerd explanation: affect is a verb, effect is a noun. This means that you can affect something, but whatever you do will have an effect on something.
My mnemonic for this one isn’t as fun as the other one, but it does help me remember.
Affect is all alone. (Alliteration!)
Effect is preceded by a friend (pronouns “the” or “an,” sometimes in combination with a proper noun).
EXAMPLE: She knew she’d be able to affect his decision, if only he’d listen to her.
The action she is taking (the verb) is “to affect.”
EXAMPLE: He vowed that, despite her beauty, he wouldn’t let her affect him.
You could rephrase this so that you need the noun, instead of the verb, by saying “… let her have an effect on him.” But that’s a weaker sentence.
EXAMPLE: He marveled at the effect her beauty had on every man in the room.
Notice the “the” before effect…
EXAMPLE: She called it the Caleb Effect: the way everyone listened to him as if he had a direct line to the Almighty.
Again, there’s a “the,” and then a proper noun or name (Caleb).
To wrap up: “only chickens lay” and “affect is all alone.” Just remember those two tricks, and you’ll be able to use these words correctly every time.
If you have any specific issues you’d like to see addressed in this column, please make a suggestion in the comments! I’m always looking for new topics.
One last note: As obsessive as I am about grammar, I’m also human. While I will do my best to
avoid any errors in these columns, if you notice anything I got wrong, please point it out in the comments! I’m always happy to learn something new!
Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off of them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction.