Lay or Lie?

by Craig Shrives

Lay or Lie?

What is the difference between "lay" and "lie"?
  • "To lay" means to place in a horizontal position. For example:
    • Every morning, he lays her dressing gown on the bed.
  • "To lie" means to be in a horizontal position. (Beware! The past tense is "lay.") For example:
    • In the evenings, I lie on my sofa and listen to music.
    • Her dressing gown lay on the bed.
    • (This is the past tense.)
  • "To lie" also means to speak an untruth. For example:
    • I lie for you all the time.
lay or lie?

Table Showing the Forms

The table below shows the various forms of "to lay" and both meanings of "to lie:
Present TensePast TenseParticiples
To lay (to place in a horizontal position)
  • I lay the ruler on the material.
  • The waiter lays the cutlery on the table.
  • I laid the ruler on the material.
  • The waiter laid the cutlery on the table.
  • I am laying the ruler on the material.
  • (present participle)
  • The waiter has laid the cutlery on the table
  • (past participle)
    To lie (to tell an untruth)
  • I lie to save myself.
  • John lies all the time.
  • I lied to save myself.
  • John lied all the time.
  • I am lying to save myself.
  • (present participle)
  • John has lied in the past.
  • (past participle)
    To lie (to be in a horizontal position)
  • I lie and listen to music.
  • (The term "lie down" is more common than just "lie," but they mean the same.)
  • The dog lies if you show him a cookie.
  • I lay and listened to music.
  • The dog lay if you showed him a cookie.
  • I am lying and listening to music.
  • (present participle)
  • The dog has lain long enough for that cookie.
  • (past participle)

    A Video Summary

    Here is a 3.5-minute video summarizing this lesson on "to lay" and "to lie":

    More about "Lay" and "Lie"

    There is often confusion over the verbs "to lay" and "to lie." The confusion arises because "to lay" [to place something in a horizontal position] and "to lie" [to be in a horizontal position] have similar meanings. The confusion is not helped by the past tense of "to lie" (when it means to be in a horizontal position) being "lay."

    Here are the most common terms with "to lie" and "to lay":
    • To lay something flat (e.g., a table cloth)
    • To lie flat (i.e., to be in a lying position)
    • (Remember that "He lay flat" is correct for the past tense.)
    • To lie low (to keep a low profile)
    • ("He lay low" is correct for the past tense.)
    • To lie down (to get into a lying position)
    • ("He lay down" is correct for the past tense.)
    • To lie ahead (to be in the future or farther down the road)
    • ("It lay ahead" is correct for the past tense.)

    To Lay (Past Tense: Laid)

    "To lay" means to place something in a position, especially a horizontal position. For example:
    • The maids lay the table for dinner at 7 o'clock.
    • The policeman urged the boys to lay their weapons on the floor.
    • Put your hands up, and lie down your weapons.
    • (This should be "lay down.")
    • We are expecting our white spotted bamboo shark to lay eggs in April.
    The past tense of "lay" is "laid." For example:
    • Annabelle laid the puppy in the basket.
    • They laid the body on the bank and notified the coroner.
    The past participle is also "laid." For example:
    • According to the pamphlet, we should have laid old sheets on the floor to prevent paint splashes landing on the decking.
    • A teenager killed by a shark in northern New South Wales has been laid to rest.

    To Lie (Past Tense: Lied)

    The verb "to lie" (with the past tense "lied") means "to say something untrue in order to deceive." For example:
    • Did you lie about your age to join the Army?
    • Your eyes betray you when you lie.
    • My reflexologist says I am lying about my health. He says that my feet, however, do not lie.
    • (The present participle of "to lie" is "lying")
    Remember that the past tense of "to lie" in this meaning is "lied." For example:
    • Malcolm lied his way past the doormen.
    • Billy lied so often about his boxing achievements, he forgot the truth.
    The past participle of "to lie" is also "lied:
    • Malcolm had lied his way past the doormen.

    To Lie (Past Tense: Lay)

    The verb "to lie" (with the past tense "lay") means "to be in, or move into, a horizontal position." For example:
    • I think I'll lie down for 20 minutes after lunch.
    • Lie on your back and look at the stars.
    • Clutching his betting slip, Mr. Reynolds screamed, "Get up! Don't just lie there." However, Paul was just lying on his back with one eye on the referee while the count went ahead.
    • (The present participle of to "to lie" is "lying.")
    • My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.
    • (As in this example, "to lie" can simply mean "to be.")
    Remember that the past tense of "to lie" in this meaning is "lay." For example:
    • An alibi? I just lay on the sofa all night, watching The Simpsons.
    • The snow lay on the field all week.
    The past participle of "to lie" in this meaning is "lain." For example:
    • Mark had lain at the foot of the knoll for hours.
    • How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home?

    The Main Culprit

    The most common mistake is to use "lie" instead of "lay." If you remember that "lie" cannot take a direct object, then you will eliminate this error.
    • To lay your head on the pillow.
    • To lie your head on the pillow.
    • (In these examples, "your head" is the direct object. Remember that "lie" cannot have a direct object.)
    • My chicken lays eggs.
    • My chicken lies eggs.
    • (In these examples, "eggs" is the direct object. Remember that "lie" cannot have a direct object.)

    The Other Culprits

    "Lay" (the past tense of "to lie") is not common, and some people are tempted (incorrectly) to use "laid." For example:
    • The crocodile laid still for hours.
    • (This should be be "lay.")
    "Lain" is quite a rare word, and some and some people are tempted (incorrectly) to use "laid" for this too. For example:
    • The snow had laid on the field all week.
    • (This should be "lain.")
    Interactive Exercise
    Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

    See Also

    adverse or averse? affect or effect? appraise or apprise? avenge or revenge? bare or bear? complement or compliment? dependant or dependent? discreet or discrete? disinterested or uninterested? e.g. or i.e.? envy or jealousy? imply or infer? its or it's? material or materiel? poisonous or venomous? practice or practise? principal or principle? tenant or tenet? who's or whose? What is the past tense? What are past participles? What are present participles? What are verbs? What is a direct object? List of easily confused words