Laying down the law on ‘lie’ versus ‘lay’

In honor of Grammar Day, we seek to erase the rampant confusion over these two words. Here’s help for keeping them straight.


Pop quiz: Which of the following sentences is grammatically correct?

A. I take my shoes off, turn back the covers, fluff the pillow, and lay down.

B. A layer of dust was laying all over the old books.

C. The toddler laid on the floor during his tantrum.

D. According to the defendant’s testimony, he had lain the money on the desk.

E. For the last time, lay down and be quiet!

Answer: Would you be surprised to learn that none of the sentences is grammatically correct?

The words “lay” and “lie” can trip up even the most experienced writers among us. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, these two verbs “have been confused for centuries.”

Let’s break the cycle now. Here’s how to avoid getting it wrong:

Understand that the words “lay” and “lie” mean different things: Some people think that “lay” and “lie” are synonyms, thus interchangeable. This is not the case. Lie means to recline. Lay, on the other hand, means to put or place something (or someone) onto something else. See how different they are? For example, you would lay (put/place) the test paper on the table, but you would lie (recline) in your bed after completing said test.

Understand how tense works: If we spoke in simple present tense all the time, we might not have such a problem with “lie” and “lay.” But that would make for some pretty boring speech (“I go to the store. I buy chocolate. I eat it.” Yawn). Tenses allow us to add a sense of time to language. The downside? The freedom to use words to transcend time comes with a price, particularly when it comes to certain “difficult” verbs. Here’s a handy chart showing the various tenses of “lie” and “lay.” (Note that we have omitted some, such as the present and past subjunctive tenses. No need to get too fancy.)

LIE LAY
Simple present lie / lies (“I lie on the floor.”) lay / lays (“I lay the paper on the table.”)
Present participle lying (“I am lying on the floor.”) laying (“I am laying the paper on the table.”)
Simple past lay (“Yesterday, I lay on the floor.”) laid (“Yesterday, he laid the paper on the table.”)
Past participle lain (“I had lain on the floor all day.”) laid (“He had laid the paper on the table.”).
Imperative lie (“Lie on the floor!”) lay (“Lay the paper on the table!”)

It may help to just memorize the chart, as in “Lie, lying, lay, lain, lie, lay, laying, laid, laid, lay,” but because that’s a rather mind-numbing activity, we’ve created a poem for you to memorize instead.

Simple present of lie The stomach flu strikes! I lie on the floor
Present participle of lie My dog is lying guard by the bathroom door.
Simple past of lie (I lay on the floor all day yesterday too—
Past participle of lie Never in my life had I lain so long by the loo)
Imperative of lie “Lie closer,” I mutter a desperate plea;
Simple present of lay My pup edges near, then lays a blanket over me!
Present participle of lay Gasp! Now he’s laying a compress upon my aching head!
Simple past of lay Turns out, he already laid out saltines and dry bread
Past participle of lay When had he laid the groundwork for being a genius pet?
Imperative of lay Lay your head down and chill,” he says. “It’s really no sweat.”

Understand where the confusion lies: “What’s the simple past tense of “lie?” That’s right, it’s “lay.” Now, what’s the simple present tense of “lay?” It’s lay! This is likely the biggest culprit for lie/lay confusion—the fact that the simple past of “lie” and the simple present of “lay” are the same word. But remember, they mean two completely different things. One means to rest in the past; the other means to put or place something (or someone) upon something else in the present. Yes, it’s a brain freeze-but once you get it, you’ll know it forever.

The problem? As soon as the blinders come off, you’ll see (and hear) lie/lay errors everywhere—casual conversation, signs, public service announcements, even news articles. It may drive you just a little bit crazy, but then, when it comes to grammar, no one ever said knowledge was bliss.

A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than 560,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.

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