Lay versus lie: 3+ ways to remember

Lay and lie are frequently confused verbs that have similar meanings (to do with objects or people lying horizontal on a surface), but for this one big detail – lay is transitive and always has a direct object; lie is intransitive and will never have a direct object.

The reason it seems confusing is that the past tense of lie also happens to be called lay. But this lay should be compared to laid – the past tense of lay. A great way to remember is to chant the present, past and past participle of each verb as one unit: lay-laid-laid and lie-lay-lain.

Lay means to set something down, to place, or to arrange it over or onto a surface. It is typically used in reference to inanimate objects — for example, I am going to lay out these candles on this shelf, or please lay this book on the table.
The verb lay will always have a direct object.

Lie is a verb that means to recline, or to rest in a hosizontal position. It is often used to refer to people or animals — for example, I need to lie down in bed, or the dog lies in front of his master's grave for hours.

Verb Syntax

In this video, Emma explains the difference between lie and lay:

Presence of Direct Object

Lay is a transitive verb, and will always, without exception have a direct object. In other words, this will involve two nouns:

  • the subject (i.e. the person who lays something down),
  • an object (i.e. the something which the person is laying down).
    • E.g. Jack lay the book on the table.

(Always ask: Jack lay WHAT on the table? – And there should be an answer: The book.)

    • I lay my head in her lap.

(WHAT did I lay in her lap? – My head.)

The adverb phrase – i.e. the phrase indicating where the action took place need not necessarily have a noun.

The words 'table' and 'lap' in the above examples allude to where the action took place, but we really don't require any nouns here. E.g. I lay the book there. I lay my head down.

Lay Versus Lie: 3+ Ways to Remember She lays the plate (direct object) on the table

Lie is an intransitive verb, and is only about what the subject is doing (by and to himself). It will never have a direct object, and the only required noun is the subject.

  • E.g. Jack lies down (on the bed).

(Ask: Jack lies WHAT? And there's no answer, because there's no direct object.)

(I lie WHAT? No answer.)

Again, the adverb phrase may or may not have a noun. Do notice that when you ask Jack lies WHAT?, “on the grass” answers “where,” not “what.”). And even here, the adverbial noun need not exist. E.g. Jack lies down. I lie there.

Lay Versus Lie: 3+ Ways to Remember No direct object

Action vs Position

Lay will always denote an action in progress; a motion. When you say Jack lays the book on the table, the book moves with Jack's hand on to the table.
My head moves down onto her lap.

Lay Versus Lie: 3+ Ways to Remember Notice there's a movement from point A to point B in laying the plate on the table

Lie always denotes and unchanged position. When you say Jack lies on the bed, you refer to Jack's position, i.e. he is already there, lying on the bed.

Lie or Lay? Get It Right Every Time

Lay Versus Lie: 3+ Ways to Remember

Substituting lay (to place or arrange) for lie (to recline or be situated) is undoubtedly one of the most common usage errors in English. Why? Because, for one thing, the past tense of lie is lay. For another, lie can also mean to fib, and using the word correctly might lead to ambiguity in certain instances, as here: Eric is lying about the house.

Is he lounging around, or telling a fib about the house? Context, of course, would provide the needed clarity, but perhaps to avoid potential confusion, our brains default to the word that, although incorrect, leaves no doubt about the meaning. Who knows? Neurolinguistics is hardly my area of expertise …

Whatever the reasons for the confusion, let’s try to clear it up once and for all.

Tense Matters

Remembering which word to use is easiest with the present tense. Lay is a transitive verb, meaning it’s followed by a direct object (i.e., whatever is being placed or arranged, shown here in bold): Will you lay the blanket on the bed?

  • Lie is intransitive, meaning it doesn’t need a direct object for the sentence to make sense: Maria lies down for 20 minutes every night after work.
  • An easy way to remember which word to use in the present tense is this:
  • LAY: to PLACE (share the letter A)
  • LIE: to RECLINE (share the letter I)

Moving beyond the present tense makes things a little more challenging. Not only is the past tense of lie the same word as the present tense lay, but both the past tense and past participle of lay are laid, and the present participle of lie is the same (i.e., lying) whether you’re talking about reclining or fibbing. What?!! Tense matters indeed.

If that’s too much to keep straight (and it’s nearly impossible for most folks), the following chart might help:

Present Tense Past Tense Past Participle Present Participle
lay laid laid laying
lie lay lain lying

A Place for Everything

If the transitive/intransitive, direct object/no object distinctions make your eyes glaze over, there’s an easier way — and it works for all forms of the verb.

Not sure whether to use lie or lay or some variation of either? Substitute the word place (or placed or placing, as appropriate to the context). If the sentence makes sense with some form of place, use the corresponding form of lay.

Otherwise, use the appropriate form of lie. Let’s try it out (correct answers in green):

Michael [laid/lay] awake many nights worrying about his future. You wouldn’t say “Michael placed awake,” so the past tense of lay (i.e., laid) is incorrect.

The treasure had [laid/lain] undiscovered for more than a century. “The treasure had placed undiscovered” doesn’t make sense, so the past participle of lie is correct.

I need the third book in that stack [laying/lying] on the table. The stack isn’t placing on the table, so the present participle of lie is correct.

Julia [laid/lay] her briefcase on her desk. Julia could certainly place her briefcase on her desk, so the past tense of lay is correct.

The ground troops [lay/laid] in waiting for nearly 20 hours before the enemy appeared. You wouldn’t say they placed in waiting, so the past tense of lie is correct.

***

Let us know in the comments below if you find these tips useful, and whether you know of any other tricks for distinguishing lie and lay.

Lie vs. Lay vs. Lied vs. Laid vs. Lain

One of the hardest irregular verbs in English to use properly is “to lie,” and another is “to lay.” Between the two of them, you often can’t tell if you’re lying about laying or laying about lying. The verbs have a multitude of overlapping meanings, and then they’re conjugated differently while being spelled the same.

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However, you can become an expert if we take it one step at a time. And we’ll start with the hardest one.

Meanings: Lie vs. Lay

“To lie” has a different meaning from “to lay.”

1. To lie: To recline.
2. To lay: To place something somewhere.

Technically, we’re talking about the difference between an intransitive and a transitive verb, but we don’t have to get all technical. The first you do all on your own. The second you do to something else. In other words, “to lay” requires a thing (i.e., an object) to lay.*

All of which wouldn’t be so bad, except that the past tense of “to lie” is, of all things, “lay.”

So, if I am reclining on the bed or easy chair, “to lie” works this way:

I/You/We/They lie down.
She/He lies down.
I am lying down.
You/We/They are lying down.
She/He is lying down.
I/You/She/He/We/They lay down. (This is past tense!)
I/You/She/He/We/They will lie down.
I/You/We/They have lain down.

  • She/He has lain down.
  • The following are correct:

Sally lies on the sofa and watches TV. Yesterday, she lay on the same sofa, but she will not lie there tomorrow. I’m going to lie down on it instead.

Now, when I’m doing the action to something else, I use “to lay”:

I/You/We/They lay the book on the table.
She/He lays the book on the table.
I am laying the book on the table.
You/ We/They are laying the book on the table.
She/He is laying the book on the table.
I/You/She/He/We/They laid the book on the table.
I/You/She/He/We/They will lay the book on the table.
I/You/We/They have laid the book on the table.

S/He has laid the book on the table.

The follow are correct: That chicken has laid an egg every day for weeks, but yesterday it did not lay an egg. It better be laying an egg right now.

Lay Versus Lie: 3+ Ways to RememberSo, by themselves, the words are not so bad. And you’ll keep from being confused if you take note of the important bits:  While “lay” is the past tense of “to lie,” all tenses of “to lay” use some form of “lay.” Also, “laid” follows familiar rules as the past tense of “to lay” (e.g., say/said, pay/paid). So really, the only crossover between “to lie” and “to lay” are on the “to lie” side with “lay” and “lain” in the past.

I wish I could stop there. But wait, there’s more.

Meanings: Lie vs. Lie

“To lie” has a second meaning.

1. To recline.
2. To tell a falsehood.

Thank the language gods, however,  because “to lie” in the sense of being untruthful conjugates in the usual way:

I/You/We/They lie.
She/He lies.
I am lying.
You/We/They are lying.
She/He is lying.
I/You/She/He/We/They lied.
I/You/She/He/We/They will lie.
I/You/We/They have lied.

She/He has lied.

Notice (and if you take away one thing from this post, this should be it) that “lied” can only be the past tense of telling a falsehood. If someone lied, they fibbed.

All of which means the following are correct:

I lied to my friend yesterday. (to fib)
She lays the law on the line. (to place)
All the kids need to go lie on their sleeping bags. (to recline)
Tomorrow the boss will lay out the cash.

(to place)
He lay in bed all last night but didn’t sleep. (to recline)
You should have lied and said you had it done.

(to fib)
Every day for a week now, the protester has lain down in front of the bulldozer. (to recline)

Now I lay me down to sleep. (to place)

Hey! What about that last one? “I lay”?

No, “I lay me.” You could also say, “I lay myself down to sleep,” but “me” fits the poetic meter. Without the “me,” it would have to be said, “Now I lie down to sleep.”

So you can see that it’s all a little confusing, but it’s not impossible. Again, remember that “lied” can only be about falsehoods and “laying” something requires an object, and you’ll be right most of the time.

Julia H.

*You can make your own dirty joke there.

To Lie or To Lay?

This website addresses a number of confusing word pairs, including effect and affect, sit and set, and bad and badly, just to name a few. But none are more confusing than lie and lay.

These verbs have traditionally held very different meanings. Simply put, to lie means “to rest,” “to assume or be situated in a horizontal position,” and to lay means “to put or place.”

(Of course, a second verb to lie means “to deceive,” “to pass off false information as if it were the truth,” but here we are focusing on the meaning of to lie that gives writers the most grief.)

Languages change, and we are certainly moving toward a time when style and grammar books no longer distinguish between lay and lie, but we aren’t there yet.

To Lie

To lie is an intransitive verb: it shows action, and the subject of the sentence engages in that action, but nothing is being acted upon (the verb has no direct object).

Put another way, the verb to lie does not express the kind of action that can be done to anything. Remember that it means “to recline” or “to rest.”

It is conjugated this way:

  • I lie here every day. (Everyone lies here. They lie here.)
  • I am lying here right now.
  • lay here yesterday.
  • will lie here tomorrow.
  • have lain here every day for years.

Notice that we never use laid to describe the act of reclining.

To Lay

To lay is a transitive verb: it describes action done to something, so it will always have a direct object. That is, something or someone has to be receiving the action of the verb to lay.

Something in a sentence using the verb to lay must be getting “put” or “placed.”

The following list of sentences illustrates various tenses of the verb to lay, each with the direct object book:

  • I lay my book on the table every night before turning out the light. (Everyone lays a book on the table. They lay their books on the table)
  • I am laying my book on the table right now.
  • I laid my book on the table yesterday.
  • I will lay my book on the table tomorrow.
  • I have laid my book on the table every night for years.

What Makes This Distinction So Tough?

Commonly Confused Words: Lay v. Lie

The choice is tricky.  Native English speakers are often not sure about which is correct, and lay ends up overused when in fact lie is the correct choice.

The “lie versus lay” debate is particularly confusing, for 3 main reasons:

1.) Their spellings are similar, but not the same.

2.) Their meanings are similar, but not the same.

3.) The past tense of lie is the present tense of lay….

Recipe for a Grammatical Disaster!! 

Not to worry. 

The key lies in understanding what the words actually mean

Once the meaning difference between lay and lie is understood, the spelling falls into place.

*Note: The word “lie” has two meanings.  The one that concerns telling “false truths” is irrelevant to this discussion.  You can lie about your age, people have lied about lots of things, and will continue lying in the future – but we don't care right now! 

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Let's stick to the issue.

>

Use this table as a guide if you get lost.  But make sure to read about each tense's unique spelling.  Might let things lie smoother in your head!

TenseLieLay
Present Lie Lay
Past Lay Laid
Past Participle Lain Laid

Present Tense:  Lie v. Lay

  • The The Gregg Reference Manual, 10th ed., defines the words as:
  • Lie = to recline; to rest; to stay.
  • This verb cannot take an object.  (A subject performs the action on itself; you cannot rest a book)
  • I don't feel well;  I might lie down for a few minutes.

Fido!  Lie still!  

  1. Lay = to put or to place
  2. This verb requires an object to complete its meaning.
  3. To lay the book on the table.  

Lay requires a direct object, and lie does not.  What does this mean?   

You can lay something down – a book, a baby, a pen – but you yourself will lie down.The difference here is in usage.  The meanings of lay and lie are very similar – both have to do with reclining/setting down.  

  • The same concept applies to the past tense and past participle forms of the two verbs. 
  • You simply substitute the past tense or past participle forms (lay versus laid; lain versus laid). 
  • “lie” and “lay” have similar meanings with very different usages.

Past Tense:       Lay v. Laid

  1. The past tense of lie is lay.       
  2. The tiger lay on the ground.
  3. The past tense of lay is laid.  
  4. I laid my hat on the shelf.

Past Participle:          Lain v. Laid

  • The past participle of lie is lain.
  •           The tiger has lain down.
  • The past participle of lay is laid.       

The teacher has laid a book on the table.

Useful Expressions to Remember:

“Lie down” = rest (“lay down” is incorrect!)

Take lying down = to passively accept something

I will not take this pay cut lying down!  

*A Memory Trick:

The Gregg Reference Manual offers a useful tip when trying to decide between lay and lie: 

Substitute the word “place” for “lay” or “lie” in the sentence. 

If place works, use “lay”.  If place makes the sentence sound funny, the correct word is “lie”. 

For example, you would not say “I'm going to 'place' down.”  You would go lie down.

But, to “'place' a pie on the table” works, so you can “lay a pie on the table” too!

REMEMBER:  to place = to lay

Still Confused?  

It's ok!  It takes time!

Don’t Lay This Lesson in the Garbage!  And Don’t Lie Down in Frustration!

Common grammar mistakes– Lay versus lie

In many of my grammar posts, I often discuss common but misused words like it’s versus its or I.e versus E.g.. So, for this week’s installment, I’ll be covering the differences between lie and lay, probably the most misconstrued of all.

The most barebones difference between lie and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires a direct object. Going back to third grade, direct objects follow transitive verbs or action words. They are the “what?” and “who?” of the “subject+verb” equation. As in:

Jenny(subject) + played(verb)+WHAT?” Answer, soccer (direct object).

So, lay needs something or someone to do the laying– for instance, “Lay your book on the table.” Of course, as a command, the subject is the invisible ‘you’ and the sentence can be diagrammed as follows:

(You, subject) + Lay(action verb) + your book (direct object) +on the table (prepositional phrase, but more on this later)

Lie, on the other hand, does not require a direct object. So, if you want to lie down on the couch, you’re free to do so. Please note: “on the couch” is NOT a direct object (yet another prepositional phrase, more on that later) as the couch is not doing the lying down, you are the one doing it. Okay, get up now.

Sounds easy, right?

Here’s an easy way to remember:

Fans of older music will be shocked to know that both Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are wrong: “Lay, lady, lay” should be “Lie, lady, lie“, and “Lay down, Sally” should be “Lie down, Sally”. Yet, Kelly Rowland, in all her pop-princess glory, is totally right with “Lay it on me“. Well, that’s music for you.

The present participles of these verbs aren’t so bad, either. As a reminder, participles are part of the perfect tenses– they are the latter half of verb phrases with am, has/has been, and have/have been in them.

The present tense of lie is lying— as in, “I’m lying down on the couch right now; it’s pretty awesome”. Or, “He’s been lying on the couch for a while, he must be lazy.”

The present tense of lay is laying, which is pretty straight forward. One example is: “She has been laying her coat on my chair every day since she’s moved in.” Or, for special occasions, you can say: “The Golden Goose has been laying golden eggs again!” This works because the golden eggs serve as the direct object in this sentence; it’s a different definition, but the same rule applies.

Okay, here comes the really tricky part.

The past tense of lay is laid. The past participle of lay is also laid. Too easy.

But, the past tense of lie is lay. Not so easy. And, a little ridiculous, if you ask me. To make it a little more difficult, the past participle of lie is lain. Ugh.

(To refresh your memory: the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses–I.e, the verb phrases that have has, have, and had in them.)

Laws of language aside, it is what it is. Your job though is to remember it. I don’t have any funny or stupid-yet-oddly-helpful ways to remember it, so just memorize it. Sorry, guys.

  • Here’s how to conjugate both lie and lay in the past tense, with examples::
  • LIE
  • I lie in bed at night, thinking about dinosaurs.
  • Yesterday, I lay there thinking about them, too.

And, the night before last, I also had lain in bed thinking about them. I may have a problem.

  1. LAY
  2. I lay my coat on this chair, usually.
  3. Earlier, I laid my coat on this chair  But, it’s not there.

Oh, I forgot I had laid my coat on the bed instead. Fail.

Easy? It can be when working with present tense, but it can get confusing when using the past tense. Unfortunately, the only way to learn how to do this properly is by memorizing these rules. But, it gets easier with practice, don’t worry. Soon enough, you’ll be laying and lying all over the place.

Lay vs. Lie – Word Counter

“Lie,” “lay,” “laid,” “lain”—I think I need to go lie down. Don’t stress. These four forms all refer to the same idea. As always, context will point the way.

To begin with, discard your notions of the word “lie” as meaning “to tell a falsehood.” That’s not what we’re dealing with in this post.

The basic rule

Lie means to rest, or recline. It doesn’t require an object. Whoever or whatever is performing the verb “lie”, also receives that action.

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Lay means to put something down or set something into place. “Lay” cannot stand by itself—it has to “lay” something down.

  • My chickens lay eggs each day.
  • My chickens lie down to sleep around dusk.

Easy enough, right?

The catch is that some forms of “lie” and “lay” are the same, but are used in different contexts.

Present Tense Past Tense Past Participle
Lie Lay Lain
Lay Laid Laid

When to use Lie

“Lie” is the present tense form of itself, and Lay is the past tense form.

  • I lie down on the couch after I eat my lunch every afternoon.
  • Rather than push the argument, Kevin let the discussion lie until a later time.
  • The start of the Appalachian Trail lies north of Charlottesville, Virginia.

In sentence 1, “lie” is referring to a horizontal position. In sentence 2, the “lie” is more metaphorical, meaning Kevin left the discussion alone, or he did not disturb it further. In sentence three, the “lie” is directional, as in the start of the trail rests north of Charlottesville.

“Lay” is the past tense form of “lie.” Notice that “lied” is not a word relating to this idea.

  • Yesterday, I lay down on the couch after I ate lunch.
  • Though the explorers had traveled far, their destination lay far ahead of them.
  • James searched all over the house, but finally spotted his car keys where they lay on the table.

In sentence 1, the action is undoubtedly taking place in the past. If you’re not sure what tense the sentence is in, try locating another verb that can indicate the tense for you. For instance, in sentence 2, “traveled” is a past tense verb, so you know that “lay” is also past tense. In sentence 3, the car keys were resting on the table.

“Lain” is the past participle form of “lie.” The past participle form is usually preceded by “has” or “have.” This indicates an action that is in a state of completion.

  • I have lain on that couch before.
  • The princess has lain in that castle since the spell was cast upon her.
  • When the tornado reached his house, Ezra had lain down in a ditch for protection.

Each of these sentences shows an act that has already been completed. In sentence 1, the speaker is not currently doing the action of lying on the couch. In sentence 2, the princess is taking no action, she is simply in a state of laying down. In sentence 3, the tornado comes to Ezra as he’s already taken cover in the ditch.

When to use Lay

“Lay” is the present tense of itself.

  • I lay my bags down by the door when I come home from work.
  • At the poker tournament, Kelly is visibly perspiring as she lays her final card.
  • Lay your sleeping bag by the entrance of the tent.

In sentence 1, the speaker isn’t in the action of laying the bags down, but she does presently do so on a habitual basis. In sentence 2, it’s clear that the action of laying is happening, as it is in sentence 3.

To tell the difference, just picture the idea. Is a thing being put down? If so, “lay” is correct.

“Laid” is the past tense of “lay.”

  • I laid the envelope on the dresser, then I left for good.
  • After taking the door off its hinges, Michael laid it on the saw horses.
  • When he came home from prom with alcohol on his breath, Billy’s dad laid down the law.

In sentence 1, “laid” has an object, “envelope.” In sentence 2, Michael is setting down the door. In sentence 3, even though the adverb “down” comes before the object “law,” Billy’s dad is still setting something into place.

“Laid” is also the past participle of “lay.” Remember, the past participle refers to a completed action and usually follows “have,” “has,” or “had.”

  • After I had laid the envelope on the dresser, I left for good.
  • Michal has laid the door on the saw horses, so he can begin sanding it.
  • Call me after 9 p.m., after I have laid the baby down to sleep.

In all of these examples, it’s clear what is being laid down.

Pop Quiz

Try your skill with these example sentences.

  1. To make cookies, first you should preheat the oven. Then, (lie, lay) a piece of parchment paper on a baking pan.

  2. Many galaxies and solar systems (lie, lay) outside the Milky Way galaxy.

  3. You’ve made your bed, now you must (lie, lay) in it.

  4. After Johnny had (lain, laid) the groceries down, he went back to the car to get his backpack.

  5. The Titanic has (lain, laid) on the bottom of the ocean since it sank in 1912.

  6. The day after the championship game, the players (lay, laid) around all day, because they were still tired.

  7. After taking attendance each day, the teacher (lies, lays) the papers she’s graded on the corner of her desk.

  8. I (lay, laid) the towel on the sand, but before I could lie on it, the wind blew it away.

  9. The dogs have (lain, laid) quietly in the living room all afternoon.

  10. When producing a new song, Kim (lies, lays) the beat first, then the bass line to the track.

Answers: 1. lay, 2. lie, 3. lie, 4. lain, 5. lain, 6. lay, 7. lays 8. laid, lie, 9. lain, 10. lays

Lie vs. Lay – Grammar and Punctuation

You will impress your family and friends with your grammar skills if you can distinguish between lie and lay. These words confuse even the best editors, so you pretty much have to memorize a chart and then practice to build your confidence.

Lie vs. Lay Chart

Present
Past
Past Participle
(used with helping verbs such as have)
To recline lie, lying lay has/have/had lain
To put or place lay, laying laid has/have/had laid something
To tell a falsehood lie, lying lied has/have/had lied

Example of to recline in present tense: I lie down for a nap at two o’clock every day.
Same example as above in past tense: I lay down yesterday for a nap.
Same example as above with a participle: I have lain down every day this week.

Example of to put or place something in present tense: I lay the book down.
Same example as above in past tense: I laid the book down.
Same example as above with a participle: I have laid the book down.

Example of to tell a falsehood in present tense: I am tempted to lie about my weight.
Same example as above in past tense: I lied about my weight when I renewed my driver’s license.
Same example as above with a participle: I have lied about my weight each time I have renewed my driver’s license.

Posted on Tuesday, August 1, 2006, at 9:43 pm

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