Frequently Confused Verbs
Lie and lay
The verbs lie and lay are frequently confused.
- The coffee mug is lying on the floor.
- The cat lay in the sun all morning.
- The newspapers had lain on the veranda for two weeks before anyone noticed that Mr. Gilfillian had disappeared.
The verb lay is a transitive verb that means to place or to put. The present participle of lay is laying, and the past tense and the past participle are both laid:
- I was laying the coffee mugs on the table when I dropped one.
- Bridget laid the suspicious-looking parcel on the commissioner’s desk.
- The supervisor had laid a mug of scalding coffee on the desk only moments before the bulldozer rammed into the construction office.
In each of these sentences, the transitive verb lay indicates that someone had placed something somewhere.
Sit and set
The verbs sit and set are also frequently confused.
The intransitive verb sit means to rest or to occupy a seat. The present participle is sitting, and both the past tense and the past participle are sat:
- Charlie will be surprised when he learns that he is sitting on a freshly painted bench.
- We sat in the corridor outside the dean’s office all afternoon.
- The students have sat in the excruciatingly uncomfortable chairs outside the dean’s office for several hours.
In each of these sentences, the verb sit is used with an adverbial phrase to describe the position of the subject.
The transitive verb set means to place, to put or to lay. The present participle of set is setting, and both the past tense and the past participle are set:
- The clockmaker was setting her tools on the bench when the mayor came into her shop.
- Joe set plates and soup bowls on the table.
- Once we had set the report on the director’s desk, we left the office.
In each of these sentences, the verb set describes the placing of objects in a specific place.
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© Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa
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