Chilling out about tense

12 June 2020

Is it lay or lie? What about laid and lied? And why do we write ‘paid’ and not ‘payed’? Using the correct tense is an important part of communicating your message clearly. Using the wrong tense could mislead your reader. Tense indicates the connection between 2 or more time periods. Knowing when an action occurred is important to add meaning to your communication. 

For example, if you're writing an accident report you will need to make it clear whether the hazard is current and ongoing or whether it has been resolved. You may also wish to flag potential hazards that could cause issues in the future.

Regular and irregular verbs

There are 3 main tenses in English: past, present and future. We form different tenses by changing the form of the verb. The verb is the ‘action’ or ‘doing’ word (e.g. ‘to work’):

Past tense: Before COVID-19 all our staff worked in our city office.

Present tense: Most staff work from home now.

Future tense: Next month some staff will return to work in the office again.

Most people don’t have a problem forming the present tense but it can get complicated when we refer to something that happened in the past. To form the past tense we usually add –ed to the verb, but not always.

Some verbs, known as irregular verbs, change their spelling in past tense. For example, the past tense of ‘wear’ is ‘worn’, not ‘weared’. Here are some others:

Verb

Past tense

see

We saw the storm approaching.

We have seen many storms approaching.

become

With practice, we became better at writing.

With practice, we have become better at writing.

begin

The technician began the data check at 4pm.

The technician has begun the data check.

find

The interns found the presentations interesting. 

The interns have found the presentations interesting.

lose

The container ship lost time due to extreme weather.

The container ship has lost time due to extreme weather.

Some irregular verbs don’t change their spelling at all in past tense (e.g. bet, put and cut).

Lie versus lay

It gets even trickier when we have to navigate ‘lie’ and ‘lay’. Lay is a verb that commonly means  ‘to put or set (something) down.’ Lie is a verb that commonly means ‘to be in or to assume a horizontal position.’

You lay or are laying something down but when you’re reclining or resting, you lie or are lying down. The past tense of lay (as in, to set something down) is laid. The past tense of lie (as in reclining or resting in a flat position) is lay.

Correct

Incorrect

The health experts told us what might lie ahead.

The health experts told us what might lay ahead.

I am going to lie down for 10 minutes.

I am going to lay down for 10 minutes.

I lay down for 10 minutes.

I laid down for 10 minutes.

The prime minister laid out the new rules for social gatherings.

The prime minister layed out the rules for social gatherings.

I am lying low until the pandemic is over.

I am laying low until the pandemic is over.

The verb ‘lie’ also means saying something that is untrue. This verb is much easier to handle as you simply add a ‘d’ to indicate past tense. For example:

Sometimes people lie to protect someone else.

The witness lied to protect someone else.

Learning grammar may not be on your bucket list, but increasing your knowledge of grammar will give you a greater command of the language. Not only that but people do judge others by whether they have good spelling and grammar. You'll appear smarter which can only enhance your professional reputation. 

For help with all your business writing needs, contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638.

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