To Lie or To Lay?

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  • Nancy Tuten

    3 October 2015

    To Lie or To Lay?

    The verbs “to lie” and “to lay” have 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.)

    Let’s use the following six sentences as the basis for our discussion below. In which of these sentences are the verbs “to lie” and “to lay” used appropriately?


    1. Every afternoon we lay down and rest for an hour.
    2. Luke laid on the beach and soaked up the sunshine.
    3. I distinctly remember lying my keys on the kitchen counter.
    4. The reports were laying on my desk this morning.
    5. When Sabine comes home every afternoon, she lays her coat on the chair by the door.
    6. Yesterday Juan laid on his sofa watching television for three hours.

    Only sentence 5 adheres to the traditional distinction between these two verbs.

    Here is the essential difference:

    “To lie” is an intransitive verb: it describes an action undertaken by the subject, but it will never have a direct object. That is, the verb “to lie” does not express the kind of action that can be done to anything. Think of it as meaning “to recline” or “to rest.” It is conjugated in this manner:

    • SIMPLE PRESENT TENSE: I lie here every day. (He/she/it lies here.)
    • CONTINUOUS PRESENT TENSE: I am lying here right now.
    • PAST TENSE: I lay here yesterday.
    • FUTURE TENSE: I will lie here tomorrow.
    • PAST PERFECT TENSE: I have lain here every day for years.

    Just remember that we never use “laid” to describe the act of reclining.

    “To lay” is a transitive verb: it needs a direct object because it describes the kind of action that is done to something. That is, something or someone has to be receiving the action of the verb “to lay.” Think of this verb as meaning “to place,” “to put”: something in the sentence must be getting “put” or “placed.”

    The verb “to lay” is conjugated in this manner (the direct object in each of these sentences is “book”):

    • SIMPLE PRESENT TENSE: I lay my book on the table every night before turning out the light. (He/she lays his/her book on the table.)
    • CONTINUOUS PRESENT TENSE: I am laying my book on the table right now.
    • PAST TENSE: I laid my book on the table last night.
    • FUTURE TENSE: I will lay my book on the table tonight.
    • PAST PERFECT TENSE: I have laid my book on the table every night for years.

    One reason people have trouble remembering the difference between “to lie” and “to lay” is that the past tense form of “to lie” is “lay”—spelled exactly like the present tense form of the verb “to lay.”

    The two past participles also cause some confusion. Many people are not even familiar with the past participle of the verb “to lie,” which is “lain”: “We have lain on every mattress in the store, and now we must decide which one to purchase.” Because “lain” is an unfamiliar verb form and because it sounds very similar to the past participle of “to lay,” which is “laid,” folks often use “laid” as the past participle for both verbs.

    Let’s return to our opening sentences:

    1. Every afternoon we lay down and rest for an hour.

    Here we need the verb that means “to recline,” “to assume a horizontal position,” which is to lie. The present tense form of the verb “to lie” is “lie.” The only time we can use “lay” to mean “to recline” is in the past tense.

    Correction: Every afternoon we lie down and rest for an hour.

    2.Luke laid on the beach and soaked up the sunshine.

    This sentence describes an act of reclining that occurred in the past. Therefore, we should have used “lay,” the past tense of the verb “to lie.”

    Correction: Luke lay on the beach and soaked up the sunshine.

    3. I distinctly remember lying my keys on the kitchen counter.

    Because the subject of this sentence (“I”) is placing the keys on the counter and because the verb has a direct object (“keys”), we need a form of the verb “to lay.”

    Correction: I distinctly remember laying my keys on the kitchen counter.

    4. The reports were laying on my desk this morning.

    These reports were reclining (resting) on the desk; they were not placing anything there. All active-voice forms of the verb “to lay” require a direct object to receive the action expressed by the verb. Sentence 4 has no direct object, however.

    Correction: The reports were lying on my desk this morning.

    5. When Sabine comes home every afternoon, she lays her coat on the chair by the door.

    This sentence is correct. She puts or places her coat on the chair. “Coat” is the direct object, the thing that was placed.

    6.Yesterday Juan laid on his sofa watching television for three hours.

    This sentence also describes an act of reclining that occurred in the past. Thus, it should have used the past tense of the verb “to lie,” which is “lay.”

    Correction: Yesterday Juan lay on his sofa watching television for three hours.

    Here is the most common mistake that people make with these verbs: they use “to lay” when they should be using the verb “to lie.”

    • They use “lay” when they should use “lie,” as in the sentence “I am going to lay down and rest.” Instead, they should say “I am going to lie down and rest.”
    • They use “laid” when they should use “lay,” as in the sentence “Fred laid in a hammock all afternoon watching the clouds.” Instead, they should say “Fred lay in a hammock all afternoon.

    The original Dear Abby was fond of describing the difference between these two verbs by saying “people lie and chickens lay.” But that trick works only with the present-tense forms: people can also lay if they reclined at some time in the past.

    Even in the present tense, Dear Abby’s oversimplification fails to work consistently: although chickens are known for laying eggs, they can also assume a horizontal position, just as people can: “The chicken was lying in the middle of the highway.” And although people may not actually be able to lay, or bring forth, an egg, they can indeed lay (i.e., put or place) any number of other objects. They can lay their keys on the kitchen counter—or lay an egg there, for that matter.

    One myth that persists about the verbs “to lie” and “to lay” is that we should use lie in reference to people and lay in reference to animals or inanimate objects (very likely an unintended outcome of the Dear Abby oversimplification about people and chickens). But the distinction between these two verbs has nothing at all to do with whether the subject of the verb is human. As we have explained, the distinction lies in whether or not the action of the verb is transferred onto something or someone else—in whether or not the verb can take a direct object.

    Here are two tips for keeping these verbs straight:

    • The verb that means “to recline” is “to lie,” not “to lay.” Thus, if we are talking about the act of reclining, we must use “to lie,” not “to lay”: “When I get a headache, I need to lie down and close my eyes.”
    • The verb “laid” will always have a direct object: for us to use the word “laid” correctly in a sentence, something or someone in the sentence must be getting “put” or “placed”: “I laid my car keys on the counter when I came home.”

    Here is a recap of the forms that go with each of these verbs:

    • to lay = “to put” or “to place” (must have a direct object): PRESENT: lay, PAST: laid, PRESENT PARTICIPLE: laying, PAST PARTICIPLE: laid
    • to lie = “to recline” (cannot have a direct object): PRESENT: lie, PAST: lay, PRESENT PARTICIPLE: lying, PAST PARTICIPLE: lain
    Test Yourself

    Can you spot confusion between the use of the verbs “to lie” and “to lay” in the following sentences?

    1. My headache was so intense yesterday that I had to lay down before dinner.
    2. Marsha lay the triplets in the playpen while she cooked dinner.
    3. Marsha lays the triplets in the playpen when she has work to do.
    4. Hector laid on the beach all morning.
    Answers
    1. My headache was so intense yesterday that I had to lie down before dinner. ["To lay” is the infinitive form meaning "to place,” which is incorrect in sentence 1 because nothing is being put or placed (i.e., there is no direct object.]
    2. Marsha laid the triplets in the playpen while she cooked dinner. [The[The past tense verb cooked tells us that we need the past tense of the verb "to lay”–meaning "to place” or "to put”, as in "Marsha put the triplets in the playpen.”]>
    3. Correct. [Here we nee[Here we need the present tense form of the verb that means "to place” or "to put”.]ctor lay on the beach all morning. [Hector did not [Hector did not place anything; he simply reclined. Thus, we need the past tense form of the verb "to lie,” which is "lay.”]pyright 2009 Get It Write; revised 2018