lay vs. lie.


Word choices: lay vs. lie 

when looking up the eternal lay vs. lie question, (similar to the chicken vs. egg conundrum), this is what i found. i started out strong, but as i kept reading, it really only served to confuse me more, and my level of understanding dropped with each new sentence of explanation and i had to lay or lie down. warning: do not try to read this when lying or laying down. 

Imagine your friends are over for a movie night, and they’ve brought a tray of brownies to share. You take the platter from them — but do you tell them you’re going to “lie” it down or “lay” it down? And will you all “lie” down to watch the movie, or “lay” down? It’s an age-old question: What is the actual difference between “lay” and “lie”? When do you use one over the other?

Why are “lay” and “lie” confusing?

To clarify: We’re not talking about the kind of lie you might tell when you call out of work or don’t finish your homework on time. We’re talking only about the setting/reclining meaning of the verb.

“Lay” and “lie” are often confused because both words are about people or objects positioned horizontally on a surface. But they are used to refer to different scenarios.

It can be quite simple — if you’re in the present tense. The past tense is when things really get confusing, since the past tense of “lie” is “lay” (sorry). But don’t worry, we’ll give you a few easy tips to help you along.

When to use “lay” vs. “lie”

“Lay” is a transitive verb. Transitive means that you have an object that is being acted upon. So “lay” means to set down or place something — an object — in a horizontal position. Here’s an example in the present tense: “I lay the book on the nightstand.” In this instance, the book is the object that is having something done to it.

“Lie” is an intransitive verb, meaning the object doesn’t need something else to put it down. Instead, the person or subject is doing the action. “Lie” means to stay at rest in a horizontal position, or to recline. An example of “lie” in present tense would be, “I feel the wind as I lie in my backyard on the grass.” In this example, the person is performing the action rather than having the action done to them.

So, in the present tense, the simplest way to determine which word to use is by looking at what is actually being reclined. If the reclining object is inanimate and/or requires someone to put it down, use “lay.” If the object is self-sufficient, such as a person, use “lie.” Quick memory tip: Only a person can lie on a bed and tell a lie.

“Lay” and “lie” in other tenses

 Let’s tackle the past tense of each, since that’s where there’s the most opportunity to pick the wrong word.

I ____ my clothes out last night before I went to bed.

Which one is it — “lay” or “lie”? Here’s how to tell: Is something happening to an object? Yep! The clothes are being set out. That tells us that we need the verb “lay,” past tense “laid.”

I laid my clothes out last night before I went to bed.

Now, what about the past tense of “lie”?

I heard a noise coming from the basement as I ____ on the sofa watching a horror movie.

In this example, there is not a specific action being performed upon an object. Rather, the speaker (the subject) is doing the action. This means we need the past tense of “lie,” which (confusingly) is “lay.”

I heard a noise coming from the basement as I lay on the sofa watching a horror movie.

Still confused? Don’t worry. You won’t get reprimanded too much if you mix these up in verbal conversation. But for written communication, it helps to practice with examples so you can be confident in your word choice.

(not me, but i was doing this after trying to figure this explanation out)

“the greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
― Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays


source credits: wordgenius, grammarly

121 responses »

  1. Ah, yes, the old lie vs. lay dilemma. The article is right: the past tense is where all the confusion starts. Thanks, Beth, for making me smile so early in the morning as I lay (past tense) in bed in the dawn light. No lie. And thank you for your dedication to posting a daily thought or shared experience, which I enjoy each morning when I’m lying in bed trying to summon up sufficient resolve to get my day started. I admire the creative way you go about it. You do that well. Al

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brain overload, IEnglish is a tricky language. I knew the difference but I still would hade done the past tense wrong. Thanks for this wonderful explanation. I shall lie down to have a rest after this… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. this used to drive me crazy when I was a kid in High School and it drove me even crazier when I became a High School teacher and was expected to know, and now I’m neither a kid or a high school teacher I just avoid the two words all together — which btw opens up a whole new can of worms: is it ‘altogether’ or ‘all together’ ???

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I got half way through this article and thought “oh dear, I should have had my coffee before reading” but by the end, I think I actually grasped it! That says a ton about your explanation skills! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Say that again? I understand the definitions, but can’t keep which word goes with which definition so I’m going to lay myself down and think about it, Actually, from now on my characters will put things down, rather than lay or lie them somewhere. LOLOLOLOL

    Liked by 1 person

  6. oh my, I’m glad you let us know not to lie, or is it lay, down while reading this post, though I find myself quite dizzy, so laying down seems prudent…another word we have fun with at work is flier or flyer, when describing and advertising piece. I always write flier, and I am told repeatedly, it is flyer, however, if you look it up, both suffice…..confusion abounds….

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m getting even MORE confused when I think that ppl will think I’m lying when I’m only ever lying ….. (on the floor or such) – I can get so worked up with this conundrum that I change my sentences around just so that I don’t have to go into that ‘discussion’!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is something that can confuse me. As you mentioned so well in your example, it can be more confusing due to the necessary use of past tense. I have no problems in German (automatical use) bit in English it can be a bit tricky … lol
    Thanks a lot for this very educative post, Beth!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for the clarification. I have always had trouble with lie and lay. I wrote a letter (back when we used snail mail) to a friend, and she criticized me for making and error with lie and lay. I never wrote her another letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Good grief!! This is one of those things where I’m good until we get three or four layers in. I thought this would set me straight…turns out I might be hopelessly confused.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m usually pretty good when it comes to grammar, but this is one of those things that remains thoroughly confusing. Somehow I’ve survived 62+ years without clearly grasping it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Duuuuuuude. Dude. I so wish I knew you in high school so you could have enlightened me. 🙂 This would have been awesome. Thanks for the refresher course the travel back in time to my No.2 pencil days 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I loathe these two words, especially when I’m editing. I always end up googling the difference. Thanks for explaining…for some reason, I just don’t get it. I think it’s when the past of one is involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pretty good explanation. My teachers growing up molded me to be particular about grammar but this is one of those rules that I never mastered. It looks like a lot of my confusion stemmed from “lay” being the past tense of “lie.”

    Liked by 1 person

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