These verbs have traditionally held 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.)
Languages change, and we are certainly moving toward a time when style and grammar books no longer distinguish between lay and lie, but we aren’t there yet.
To lie is an intransitive verb: it shows action, and the subject of the sentence engages in that action, but nothing is being acted upon (the verb has no direct object).
Put another way, the verb to lie does not express the kind of action that can be done to anything. Remember that it means “to recline” or “to rest.”
It is conjugated this way:
- I lie here every day. (Everyone lies here. They lie here.)
- I am lying here right now.
- I lay here yesterday.
- I will lie here tomorrow.
- I have lain here every day for years.
Notice that we never use laid to describe the act of reclining.
To lay is a transitive verb: it describes action done to something, so it will always have a direct object. That is, something or someone has to be receiving the action of the verb to lay.
Something in a sentence using the verb to lay must be getting “put” or “placed.”
The following list of sentences illustrates various tenses of the verb to lay, each with the direct object book:
- I lay my book on the table every night before turning out the light. (Everyone lays a book on the table. They lay their books on the table)
- I am laying my book on the table right now.
- I laid my book on the table yesterday.
- I will lay my book on the table tomorrow.
- I have laid my book on the table every night for years.
What Makes This Distinction So Tough?
One reason 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 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 similar to the past participle of to lay, which is laid, folks often use laid as the past participle for both verbs.
Examples with Explanations
- Every afternoon we lie (not lay) down and rest for an hour. Here we need the verb that means “to recline,” which is “to lie.” The present tense form of the verb to lie is lie. A very common mistake would be to use lay in this sentence, but the only time we can use lay to mean to recline is in the past tense.
- Luke lay (not laid) on the beach and soaked up the sunshine. This sentence describes an act of reclining that occurred in the past, so we should have used lay, the past tense of the verb to lie.
- I distinctly remember laying (not 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.
- The reports were lying (not 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, but sentence 4 has no direct object.
- When Sabine comes home every afternoon, she lays (not lies) her coat on the chair by the door. She puts or places her coat on the chair. Coat is the direct object, the thing that was placed.
- Yesterday Juan lay (not laid) on his sofa watching television for three hours. This sentence also describes an act of reclining that occurred in the past. Thus, it correctly employs the past tense of the verb to lie, which is lay.
The Most Common Lie/Lay Mistake
The most common mistake that people make when using these verbs is using a form of the verb to lay (in particular, laid) when they should be using a form of the verb to lie:
- “I am going to lay down and rest” should be “I am going to lie down and rest.”
- “Fred laid in a hammock all afternoon” should be “Fred lay in a hammock all afternoon.”
Dear Abby Was Only Partially Right
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.
Dispelling a Myth about Lie and Lay
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 (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.
Two Tips for Keeping Lie and Lay Straight
- The verb that means “to recline” is 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 the word laid to be used appropriately 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.” We never use laid in reference to the act of reclining.
Here is a recap of the forms that go with each of these verbs:
- to lie = “to recline” (cannot have a direct object): PRESENT: lie, PAST: lay, PRESENT PARTICIPLE: lying, PAST PARTICIPLE: lain
- to lay = “to put” or “to place” (must have a direct object): PRESENT: lay, PAST: laid, PRESENT PARTICIPLE: laying, PAST PARTICIPLE: laid
Can you spot confusion between the use of the verbs to lie and to lay in the following sentences?
- My headache was so intense yesterday that I had to lay down before dinner.
- Kathy lay the triplets in the playpen while she cooked dinner.
- Kathy lays the triplets in the playpen when she has work to do.
- Hector laid on the beach all morning.
- 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).
- Kathy laid the triplets in the playpen while she cooked dinner. 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 “Kathy put the triplets in the playpen.”
- Correct. Here we need the present tense form of the verb that means “to place” or “to put.”
- Hector lay on the beach all morning. Hector did not place anything; he simply reclined. Thus, we need the past tense form of the verb to lie, which is lay.
Copyright 2009 Get It Write. Revised 2019