To Lie or not to Lie; that is the question.

While lying with balloons, Barbara Custer contemplates novel ways to lie to her readers.

We lay in bed all day waiting for Barbara to lie down.

I’m referring to one of the verbs that give me and other writers a lot of grief –  the difference between lie, lay, and laid. That and certain words that mean one thing when used as a compound, and something else when used separately, can mess up an otherwise well-written tale.

And so therein “lies” the problem:

Lie as an intransitive verb: I am lying down with my balloons.

Lay as a transitive verb: John, please lay the balloon tree on the table.

Sounds simple but when we move to the past tense, complications arise. For example, the present tense of lie is lie. Example: He lies on the rug. The past tense is lay. Example: Robert lay on the floor. The past participle is lain. Example: He’d lain in that bed for some time.

The present tense of lay is lay. Example: I lay my purse on the table. The past tense is laid. Example: Barbara laid her balloons in the cart. The past participle is laid. She’d laid the bags on the table an hour ago.

Looking at compound words, I found that certain words, when used separately or as a compound, mean two different things. One example is setup. Is it set up, set-up or setup? So I went to my trusty dictionary.

“Setup” is a noun, while “set up” is a verb. But it’s not quite that simple. You always use “set up” when you’re using it for a verb, so….

You must set up your computer software.

Mary set up her balloon tree.

Frank set up a bank account for his client.

As a noun and adjective, you would use either setup or set-up and each means different things. Setup is the noun or adjective used pertaining to computers and their setup. Set-up is the noun or adjective used pertaining to things unrelated to computers and their setup. So…

This PC setup screen is unique.

The computer’s setup is compact.


That bag of pot was a set-up from the beginning.

Some banks charge exorbitant set-up fees

The set-up of her entertainment center is precarious.

Sometime versus some time. It sounds simple, but isn’t…quite. When “some time” is used as a certain / unspecified duration of time, use “some time.” Example: I spent some time looking for the rose balloon. When “sometime” is used as an adjective meaning “former,” it’s one word. Example: That balloon salesperson is my sometime friend. If we’re referring to an unspecified point of time in the future, either “sometime” or “some time” is appropriate. Example. I plan to travel to the islands sometime / some time next year.

As I continue my work, if I find other compound words that stump me, I will post them in a future blog. For now, I have it clear in my mind which of the above words to use in my work-in-progress. Somehow, though, when I get engrossed in the heat of the scene, I’m liable to forget and mix up the verbs. A wise instructor once told me that English was the most difficult language to learn. I think she had it right.

Do you find yourself struggling with “lie” versus “lay,” or any of the compound words? I would like to hear about your experiences with compounds and words like “lie/lay,” and how you worked your way around them.


About Barbara Custer

Author of: Twilight Healer Steel Rose Life Raft: Earth City of Brotherly Death Close Liaisons Infinite Sight When Blood Reigns Infinite Sight Publisher / Editor of Night to Dawn Books & Magazine
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  1. Thank you. I finally figured out if the dead orc in my book is to lie or lay on the ground with an axe buried in the back of his skull.

  2. I have to confess I make most mistakes owing to typing fast. I’ve typed things such as gleam instead of glean, and it’s not because I don’t know the difference. It’s just the result of getting that first draft down while the inspiration is hot. Then, I say it’s like trying to see the wood for the trees — those irritating typos just stay hidden, and it’s why you need good editors and line editors to try to help you spot them. I often read my own manuscripts so many times before they go to publication that I’m almost sick of my own stories. LOL. I often suffer further confusion because UK/US spelling differs, but so does some of our punctuation. A simple example is we do tend to use hyphens a lot more here than the US does, but there are other differences that crop up to make a difficult job even harder.

  3. I see a lot of folks confusing “then” with “than.” The use of “Your” and “you’re” also confuses some folks. Lots of people who should know better say “an historic moment.” In the word “hour” the h is silent, so “an hour” is correct. The h is not silent in “historic,” unless you’re a Cockney.

  4. How many times have you read the scene where a squirrel chews the bark from the bowl of the tree, instead of the bole of the tree? Or the accidental drop of a letter from the word. One of my favorites was in TOR Books. The author wrote, “She slipped into her insulated space suit.” The text that appeared was, “She slipped into her insulted space suit.” I’m still wondering what insulted that space suit (LOL). And lets not forget two of my favorite words: Wonder/wander and trial/trail. Both so close, yet vastly different. Enjoyed the message Popple!

  5. I like language to be precise, but I wonder if most people just get the gist of what they are reading, and don’t focus on the exactness?

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