Lay vs. Lie: A Definitive Explanation
The English language can be tricky sometimes, using similar words to express similar (yet different) meanings, like in the case of the verbs lay and lie.
Lay means to “put (something) down,” while lie means “to assume — or to be in — a horizontal position”. When used in a sentence, lay requires an object to act on, while lie does not. For example, Carla lays a book on the table. Carla lies down to read.
Of course, the verb ‘lie’ can also mean not telling the truth, but we’ll ignore that meaning for the purpose of this article. Let’s now look at these commonly mistaken terms a little more closely, and dig out examples of when to use one or the other, and how to tell them apart.
Lay: Definition and examples
Lay means “to put or place something in a flat position.” It’s a transitive verb, meaning that it always involves both a subject (the ‘thing’ performing an action) and an object (the ‘thing’ that the action is done to). Thus, laying is always done to something.
Here are some examples with the object of the sentence highlighted:
- He lays the cards on the table.
- Lay out your thought process.
- Lay your head on the pillow.
- She laid the blanket on the grass.
- He laid his eyes on her.
- She laid her hand on his shoulder.
- The dog laid its ears back.
- Kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
- The best laid plans of mice and men…
Let’s now take a look at 'lie' and see how it differs in usage.
Lie: Definition and examples
Lie means “to take, rest, or be in a horizontal position.” It’s an intransitive verb, which means it only involves a subject (the ‘thing’ performing the action). You don't find objects after the verb ‘lie’, but you’ll often see a description of where the subject is lying.
Here are some examples of the verb ‘lie’ in action:
- Let’s lie on the grass and look at the stars.
- The diver lies down at the bottom of the pool.
- He lies on the sofa to watch a movie.
- He lies down to take a nap.
- Let’s lie on the yoga mat.
- He’s been lying on the hammock all day.
- They lie down in the shade to cool off.
- If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
- Let sleeping dogs lie.
- If you lie down on the job you’ll get fired.
You’ll notice that in these sentences ‘lie’ is often followed by a physical place (i.e. the sofa, the yoga mat). However, when the context is obvious, you can use ‘lie’ without stating where the subject lies. If you say “He lies down to take a nap”, it’s obvious that he will lie on a comfy surface like a bed or a couch.
So, now that we’ve seen the difference between how we use these two words, is there a way to make it stick in our minds?
How to use lay and lie correctly
If you’re afraid you’ll confuse them when writing, here’s a trick you can use: since lay always involves an object and lie doesn’t, hijack the slang “Say what?!” and replace it with “Lay what?!” If the answer is an object, then it’s ‘lay’, if the answer is the subject, it’s ‘lie’.
For example, you want to write that Carla lays her watch on the desk, but you’re unsure whether it’s ‘lay’ or ‘lie’ 一 ask yourself: “Lay what?!” Well, the watch! So it’s ‘lay’. If you want to write that Carla lies down on the yoga mat, but again you’re unsure, ask yourself: “Lay what?!” Well, herself, so it’s ‘lie’.
If you’re not so hot on remembering elements of grammar like what subjects and objects are, here’s a mnemonic device that might help you remember how to use lay and lie: Place and recline.
Place and recline. Place and recline. Place and recline.
Think of how these words sound: pLAYce and recLIEne:
To place something is to LAY it down, while you must LIE down in order to recline.
So, the next time you’re struggling with these words, just imagine you’re flying at 40,000 ft in a first-class cabin: Place your butt on the seat (lay it down!)… and recline (lie down and get some sleep). Or imagine you come home exhausted after grocery shopping: Place the bags on the table (lay them there!), and recline on the couch to take a breather (lie down to rest).
Looking for more grammar insights? Check out this article on the Oxford comma to learn when to use it.
If you remember either trick, you'll have no problem distinguishing them when you use the present tense. Unfortunately, things get a bit messier when you use them to refer to the past.
The tricky exception — past tense!
Promise you won’t freak out, but the past tense of lie is… lay. That’s right, clearly whoever set the rules for it was having a bad hair day. But let’s not fall into despair 一 here is a tab you can refer to, with the various tenses of the two verbs:
If you're allergic to tables, just memorize that the past tense of 'lie' is 'lay', and accept it as a cruel joke played by the grammar gods.
But if you find it hard to just accept things and need to know how it works, let’s look at some examples for each tense to provide more context.
- Lay: At 8 am Carla laid down the book. It was time to prepare the kids for school.
- Lie: Yesterday Carla lay under the bed while playing hide and seek, and today she’s got back pain.
- Lay: Carla’s kids grew to be very successful. The education she gave them laid a strong foundation for their future.
- Lie: “Mum has lain in bed sick the entire morning,” said one of her kids, “let’s call a doctor.”
- Lay: Carla is proud of the house she built for her family, laying brick by brick herself.
- Lie: There’s nothing Carla enjoys more than lying in bed and reading books!
If you’re still a bit confused about all the tenses of ‘lay’ and ‘lie’, that’s fair. But remember: the more you use them, the more you’ll start to get the hang of it. Try writing a short story using as many variations of these two verbs as possible 一 it will be fun and you can refer to it whenever you're unsure. Now lay your phone on the table, and lie down to take a nap 一 you deserve it!