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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.)

We will 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 correctly?

  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 is correct.

Here is the essential difference between these two verbs:

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:

  • I lie here every day. (He/she/it lies here.)
  • I lay here yesterday.
  • I will lie here tomorrow.
  • I am lying here right now.
  • I have lain here every day for years.

Notice that we never use the verb 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”):

  • I lay my book on the table every night before turning out the light. (He/she lays his/her book on the table.)
  • I laid my book on the table last night.
  • I will lay my book on the table tonight.
  • I am laying my book on the table right now.
  • 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.”

  • 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.”

This 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): lay, laid, laying, laid

  • to lie = “to recline” (cannot have a direct object): lie, lay, lying, 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 past tense verb cooked tells us that we need the past tense of the verb to lay (meaning “to place” or “to put”—think “Marsha put the triplets in the playpen”).]
  3. Correct. [Here we need the present tense form of the verb that means “to place” or “to put”.]
  4. 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.]

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