Lie or Lay? Rise or Raise? Why You Should Know What a Transitive Verb Is

Mr. Rogers

"Can you say 'transitive'? I thought you could."


Today, boys and girls, we’re going to learn about transitiveness. Can you say transitive? I knew you could.

When people ask me about the relative importance of grammar (yes, it is only relatively important), I often mention that a rudimentary knowledge is all that is really necessary for most students. As an example, I would say it’s not important for a ninth grader to know if a verb is transitive or not. But I’ve changed my mind. There’s actually a pretty good reason for understanding the concept of transitiveness. I’ll get to that in a second.

One quality of verbs is transitiveness (sometimes called transitivity…but not transitivism or transitivocity, and definitely not transitivitiousness). It’s a big word, but a simple concept. Some verbs take a direct object; others don’t. Verbs with a direct object are transitive — they transfer an action to something. Verbs without an object are intransitive.

For example:

You buy grapes.

You sleep.

You can’t just buy; you have to buy something. The verb buy is transitive. But you just sleep. You don’t sleep something. Verbs like buy, that need an object to make sense, are transitive. Sleep is intransitive.

Of course, most verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on the context. You can climb a tree (transitive), or you can just climb (intransitive). Barbara can eat breakfast (transitive), or she can just eat (intransitive). You might say these verbs are ambitransitive.

Here’s why I think this idea matters: Many people confuse the verbs lie and lay. Another troublesome pair is rise and raise. It’s understandable that people confuse them because they sound similar to each other, and their definitions are almost identical. So what’s the difference between lie and lay and between rise and raise? You guessed it — transitiveness!

Lay is always transitive. You have to lay something. A chicken lays an egg. A waiter lays silverware on the table. Oscar lays his toupee on his bald spot. Lie, on the other hand,  is always intransitive. You just lie. You lie on a sofa. A dog lies on the front porch. A dead fly lies in your tomato soup. Lay means to place. Lie means to recline*.

Raise and rise work the same way. Raise is transitive. You raise things. Tommy raises his hand. The trooper raises a flag. Rise, then, is always intransitive. Nobody rises anything. The sun rises. Prices sometimes rise (because somebody raises them — get it?).

So, if you find yourself befuddled by lie, lay, rise, and raise, you probably ought to learn what it means when we say a verb is transitive or intransitive. It just might solve the problem.

*What makes lie and lay even more confusing is that the past tense of lie is lay — as in “Yesterday, the pigs lay in some mud.” I know; crazy, right? No wonder we goof this up so often.


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. CFloyd

    So, I have now re-read your post and I have some additional thoughts to your additions/revisions. I think sometimes people confuse lay/lie and raise/rise, not just because of their transivity, but also because many people either don’t know the conjugations or have forgotten them.

    So when they get to a sentence, spoken or written, and have to think of what the past tense, or the perfect past tence of one of these words they get stumped. I love that Classical Conversations begins memory work with these irregular verbs with young children so that when they are older and start to use them formally they will connect which part of which verb they need.

    I taught my children: Lay stays the same: to lay, lay/lays, laid, laying, laid
    Lie is a “liar” always changing his story:to lie, lie/lies!, lay (stealing others’ words), lying, (which is just so…) LAIN! (sounding like “lame”) I explain this “lie” is not the same as the actual liar verb, “lie” – this is all just for the drilling of the verb parts.

    Same with Raise – Raise stays the same. to raise, raise/raises, raised, raising, raised
    Rise – I didn’t come up with something as catchy or story-based. They just memorized: to rise, rise/rises, rose, rising, risen.

    But if someone doesn’t know the past perfect tense of lie or rise they will get stuck – whether they understand the transitiveness of the verb or not. That’s what would happen to me anyway. Don’t know if I am not seeing “lain” in modern writing, or if I just hadn’t noticed it before, but I have noticed it twice now in something of C.S. Lewis – I think Perelandra! And then something written in 1860’s.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Isabella Hodge
    Isabella Hodge12-06-2011

    Grammar has always been a weak area for me, so I love when you post about it! Very interesting.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-07-2011

      I’m glad to know I’m not the only person on the planet who thinks grammar is interesting. 🙂

  3. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen12-02-2011

    A simplified explanation of transitive and intransitive verbs! As a writing teacher and writing coach, I note much confusion with the verbs that can have both a transitive and an intransitive function, depending on how they are used. The verb *break*, for instance, sometimes takes a direct object (“Sam breaks every dish”) and sometimes does not (“When I hear Sam’s name, my heart breaks”).

    This post sheds much-needed light on this dark side of grammar.


    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-03-2011

      The majority of verbs can be either transitive or intransitive. In fact, I had a hard time finding a verb that is always transitive. There seem to be more always intransitive options.

  4. CFloyd

    I appreaciat that you have a passion to teach young people how to write better; I only wish you had a passion to teach old people how to write better too. ;P

    Thanks for the lie/lay post! We are currently drilling the conjugations of these verbs in Classical Conversations Cycle 3. I was excited to send this post to my campus facebook page. And I told them: “Don’t just lie around, read this article!” Then I challeged them to then tell me why I used “lie” not “lay” and if “lie” and “read” were transitive or intransitive. 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-03-2011

      We try to help anyone here, CFloyd, young and old. 🙂 Our writing courses are designed for teens of course, but we’ve been considering expanding our offerings. Maybe one day.

      I’ve heard great things about Classical Conversations. Met with a regional director briefly this past July.

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