Lie and lay both have many definitions, but they’re most often confused where lie means to recline and lay means to put down. But the distinction is simple: Lay needs an object—something being laid—while lie cannot have an object. For example, you might lay a book on the table, lay a sweater on the bed, or lay a child in her crib. When you feel tired at the end of the day, you may lie down. But you can’t lie a book anywhere, and you can’t lay down (no object) at the end of the day.
The verbs’ inflections are as follows:
|verb||present tense||past tense||past participle||present participle|
This is where things get weird, especially in the past-tense and past-participial inflections of lie, which sound like they should correspond to lay. For example, one would be correct in saying,
I lay down in bed at 8:45. I had lain there a few minutes when I realized the oven was on.
The past-tense lied is reserved for the sense of lie that involves intentionally making false statements.
These words can be tricky, but if you memorize the above table and remember that lay is transitive (i.e., it has an object) and lie intransitive (it doesn’t have an object), the words are not so difficult. These writers deploy them in some potentially tricky situations:
Mr Beveridge believes the bomb had lain undiscovered for decades. [Scotland Courier]
On Tuesday afternoon, crews had laid what appeared to be one layer of asphalt on one lane. [Newnan Times-Herald]
Beyond it lay an unshoveled yard where the snow was dotted with candles and two smoky fires. [NY Times]
If ever there was a work that lay down and died in the stillness of reproduction, this is it. [Chicago Tribune]
The most common errors involving lie and lay are so widespread that some English reference sources have all but given up on keeping the words separate, and of course, not using the proper form is not a big error in informal speech or writing. Still, if you are writing for school or work or in any context where you need to be taken seriously, it is best to use the traditional inflections.