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Lay vs. lie

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
lay lay laid laid laying
lie lie lay lain lying

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.

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The past-tense lied is reserved for the sense of lie that involves intentionally making false statements.

Examples

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.

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Comments

  1. I hate this one. I’m always forgetting this table. I can’t actually remember a time when I have used lain in a sentence.

  2. My friend the retired English teacher taught to me this way: I “LIE” down, to “LAY” is to place something. And, she added with a smile, the only time LAID involves people is if there are two of them.

  3. I heartedly agree with CPK. Hardly anyone seems to know the difference between LIE and LAY. I cringe especially when school teachers tell their kindergartners to “Lay down on the rug”!

  4. This is why I never use “lie down”. I say “lie back” and “lay down”. Makes it a bit easier.

  5. Nicole Won Chor Ning says:

    Thanks for the info.

  6. Ok, we know transitive verbs require an object and intransitives don’t. But what about intransitive verbs that require SOMETHING after them, in this case “lie”?

    If I say, “I lie every day,” then most would assume I do not tell the truth on a regular basis.

    But my meaning was, “I lie on my sofa and take a nap every day.” Obviously some sort of directionality is required to establish the meaning of the verb.

    Is there a name/category for this kind of verb (assuming there’s more than one )?

  7. I’ve read in several places (but I can’t remember where) that ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ and their respective past and participial forms were used interchangeably for centuries. The distinction that befuddles even ‘careful speakers’ up to and including teachers of grammar (when they aren’t teaching grammar) was created arbitrarily by grammarians in the 19th century or thereabouts. These are the same people who gave us “you can’t end a sentence with a preposition.” As many of these comments point out, ‘lie’ vs ‘lay’ vs ‘laid’ vs ‘lain’ comes naturally to no one; even professional writers have to stop and think about it. Why don’t we follow the example of the British, who finally threw in the towel about ‘shall’ vs ‘will’ after observing that only some people in southern England had ever been able to get it right spontaneously. Is it really so much fun to point out the ‘errors’ of kings, presidents, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors that we have to preserve an artificial distinction? I say forget the fads of long-dead and forgotten grammar authors and say ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ are synonyms. You don’t need two different verbs to tell if someone is using them transitively or intransitively.

    • Roy, I have to agree with you, and you put it so well. Just two examples in my mind randomly:

      (1) Song lyric: “When you’re laying so close to me” (from Love to Love You Baby).

      (2) Howard Stern: the man is paid millions to talk in English, his only language, and he does it well. Since listening for this over the last few years, I’ve concluded he basically has no intransitive verb “lie” in his vocabulary except the one about not telling the truth: he only ever uses “lay” to mean (classic) lie.

      Just want to qualify the suggestion that lay and lie be considered synonyms: this is only for classic “lie”. “Lie” cannot be used as a synonym for classic transitive verb “lay”, and lo and behold, no native English speaker ever would do that.

  8. Dee Dee Schneider says:

    I use the I in lie to remember it is use when I am referring to myself.

  9. Daffy Duck says:

    I’m watching “Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery”, on Netflix. John’s Gospel states, “He saw the linen wrappings lying there.” Shouldn’t it be laying?

  10. I have a doubt, in the song “chasing cars” there is a sentence that said “if I lay here would you lie with me”. Is it correct?hasn’t the first lay an intransitive meaning? Thank you

    • It is incorrect. It should be as follows:

      If I lie here, would you lie with me?

      • I think the lyric is correct. It’s in the subjunctive mood. Consider it along with a couple of parallel examples:

        If I lay here, would you lie with me?
        If I ran here, would you run with me?
        If I walked here, would you walk with me?

        You can paraphrase these as “If I were to lie (run, walk, etc.), would you lie (run, walk, etc.) with me?”. They sound like perfect perfect use of “subjunctive mood” to me. Tom’s proposed sentence is a faulty mix of moods or tenses, I think. If you say “if I lie here, …”, the next part should be in the future tense, i.e., using “will”, e.g.,

        If I lie here, will you lie with me?
        If I run here, will you run with me?
        If I walk here, will you walk with me?

        I believe this would be called “indicative mood”.

        • The present subjunctive of “to lie” is “lie” while the past subjunctive is “lay”… so it depends on past vs. present.

          I think he’s saying “If I were to lie here, would you lie with me?” That’s present subjunctive, I would think.

          • Tom, I don’t agree: I think the present subjunctive is formed using the simple past tense: “lay” (ran, walked, etc.); the past subjunctive is formed using the past participle “had lain” (had run, had walked, etc.).
            Another (paraphrased) example from popular song:
            If I sang out of tune, what would you do? Would you stand up and walk out on me?

          • Present subjunctive is formed using the present infinitive. In this case, that’s “lie”.

            However, I’ve changed my vote. There are six possible ways to say what the lyric says:

            1. If I lie here (now), will/would you lie with me?
            2. If I were to lie here (at some point), would you lie with me?
            3. Were I to lie here, would you lie with me?
            4. If I were lying here, would you lie with me?
            5. Were I lying here, would you lie with me?
            6. If I lay here, would you lie with me?

            There are obviously small differences between these, but — aside from the “now” vibe of the first example vs. the more ambiguous time-stamp of the other five — they essentially mean the same thing.

            The last makes sense if we substitute “to eat” for “to lie”:

            If I ate here, would you eat with me?

            I just hope that when people use “lay” as in that last example, they recognize that they are using the past tense of “to lie” and *not* incorrectly using the present tense of “to lay”. That is my hope, anyway.

            Be well.

          • One could also consider the pronoun to be “understood,” as in, “If I lay [myself] here.” It adds a slightly different sense to the statement, becoming a more deliberate act, as opposed–perhaps–to a deliberate lack of action.

          • I understand what you’re saying, but the object should be stated for “to lay” to be used. :-)

            Most grammarians would probably think you’d chosen “to lay” instead of “to lie” incorrectly, instead of gleaning that hidden object from your brain. ;-)

          • In the context of poetry or lyrics, simply adding the pronoun isn’t necessarily a good option; rhyme and meter may prohibit, and, stylistically speaking, a lot of modern poetry rids itself of as much extraneous lexical baggage as possible.

            Thus, insisting on the proscription leaves the writer with no reasonable way to impart that particular sense to the statement.

            The problem is that the average grammarian is lazy (no offense intended to any here who considers himself or herself an “average grammarian”), and enjoys simple tests he or she can apply to tell others that they are wrong. That “hidden object” was not in my brain, it came from a song written by someone else, and didn’t seen particularly hidden to me. It just required a second look at an apparent grammatical error which, at first, jarred.

            The rules do serve a purpose–without them I’d never have looked again. :)

          • Well, for grammar’s sake, as well as the sake of those who are learning the differences between “lay” and “lie”, I’d prefer “lie” if they’re going to omit the object.

            Although “lay” could be read properly also as the past tense of lie in the same way that “ate” can be used like this:

            If I ate here, would you eat with me?

            Besides, I guess since it’s not formal writing, we can give it a pass for style. My main concern is that people know what they are reading or hearing.

  11. Carolyn White says:

    Didn’t see the one that helped me.. People lie, chickens lay.

  12. Lawrence Mashiyane says:

    I am writing a story and in it I say ” This street where my body lies broken and bruised. ” I am not too sure if ” lies ” is correct. Lie is something a person does and Lay is something you do to something else. That is what I was taught but now I feel like the character’s body is more of an object than a person, thus I feel to say ” this street where my body lays broken and bruised ” is correct. Am I right or wrong? Would one not say, the book lays torn on the table?

    • I think if you read the original explanation again, or perhaps look for other sites that explain it, it will become clear. For me it’s all about the transitive/intransitive thing.

      lie = intransitive (a verb rather like a “being” word, am-is-are-was-were as I once memorized them)
      lay = transitive (a verb that needs an object, which is something with an action to be done to it)

      The body in the street (or the book on the table) is not being acted on, it’s just existing (lying) there. (NOT laying there!) If someone carried the body to the street, he would lay the body down. In that case, the body is the object of the transitive verb “lay” and is being acted upon.

      When someone laid the book on the table, it was being acted upon. But now it’s just lying there. Laid = past tense of lay. Lying = present participle of lie.

      I just checked to be sure I had the correct term there (participle), and found this site which explains things pretty much like I did. My knowledge of grammar is more instinctual than technical, so I don’t know if my explanation holds up under scrutiny, but I couldn’t resist trying to help!

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