One of the most common grammatical mistakes that we see in both speech and writing is misuse of the words lay and lie.
This error is so common, it even slips past professional writers, editors, and English teachers — all the time.
Maybe eventually these two words will morph into one and have the exact same meaning, but until then, it’s worthwhile to learn proper usage. For now, their meanings are completely different.
Let’s take a look at this interesting word pair and find out whether we should be using lay or lie based on each word’s definition.
Dictionary.com lists forty-two different definitions for the word lay. Of these, twenty-eight are categorized as a verb used with an object, eight as verbs used without an object, and six are simply nouns. Plus, there are fifteen verb phrases that use the word lay, as well as nine idioms. This is a word that can be used in a lot of different ways!
Let’s keep things simple by focusing on what differentiates lay from lie.
In short, lay is something you do to something else. You might think that sounds funny, especially considering idiom number 58 (“get laid”), but it’s true, and of course “getting laid” is exactly what you should use to remember that you lay something (down).
The word lie only has twenty-seven definitions, so that’s a relief, although that’s not taking into consideration the nine additional definitions that deal with falsehoods.
Again, we’ll keep it simple. Just remember that you should use the word lie when there is no object involved.
Lay or Lie
Here are some tips to help you remember whether to use lay or lie in a sentence:
Every sentence has a subject and a verb. An example would be the following:
I is the subject, and write is the verb. Many sentences also have an object:
I write poems.
In this example, the word poems is the object. The object in a sentence receives the action of the verb. The subject is taking or making that action.
Subject: I (does the action)
Action: write (the action)
Object: poems (receives the action; i.e. gets written)
Learning to Use Lay or Lie is Easy!
The word lay should be used when there is an object receiving the action, i.e. something or someone is getting laid (down) by something or someone else.
I always lay my pencil by the phone.
I laid the book on that chair.
I am laying down the law.
Conversely, the word lie is used when there is no object involved, i.e. the subject of the sentence is lying itself (down).
I lie down every afternoon.
The kitten lies there, dozing.
The dog is lying down.
Wait — There’s More
As with every rule, there are exceptions. Consider the following line: “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” Well, in that sentence, the speaker (I) is laying himself or herself down. We don’t normally speak like this: I lay myself down. However, if you were to include yourself in a sentence as both as subject and object, you would use lay rather than lie.
Matters get even more confusing when we look at the past tenses of these verbs. For example, the past tense of to lie is lay:
Present tense: I am lying on my bed.
Past tense: I lay on my bed last night.
The past tense of lay is laid:
Present tense: I am laying my book right here.
Past tense: I laid my book right here yesterday.
Discerning between lay or lie is not an easy feat, but once you memorize the meanings and conjugations of these two oddly similar words, using them correctly will be a snap.
Do you have any tips for remembering whether a sentence calls for lay or lie? Are there any word pairs or grammar rules that confuse you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
I like the way you crack the nut on common errors.
You framed it beautifully and walked the points with precision (and accuracy.)
Thanks, J.D. I find this stuff pretty interesting.
Excellent post. For whatever reason, I always have trouble with these two and I think you’ve done a great job of explaining it here. Thank you!
I always had trouble with them too, until I figured out the “lay something (down)” way of remembering. Little tricks like that always make grammar so much easier!
Just remember the sentence “I lied and got laid” and you would remember which one to use. Okay, or use the more PG-13 version, “I lied and got laid off”.
That’s pretty clever, Kelvin! Easy to remember, too.
Great lesson – thanks. I’m always looking for ways to remember such differences and I’m glad you took the time to straighten me out on this one!
My pleasure! I love writing about this stuff.
Thanks for this — I have a hard time remembering these things.
Here’s a question: What if I’m giving a command to my son to go to sleep?
My husband says “Lay down” but I say “Lie down”. He thinks he’s right. But isn’t the subject of that sentence (you) doing the action? The command is throwing me off.
I think the correct way is lie down. This is actually a command, and the full sentence would be “You lie down.” The subject is not laying down some other object, so it’s lie. However, you would say to your son “lay down that book.” Or if you were putting a small child to bed, I think you would say to your husband, “I’m going to go lay down the baby.” Here’s how I remember the difference: When the object of the sentence is performing the lay/lie action upon itself, it is “lie,” but when it’s performing the action upon another entity, it’s “lay.”
Yes! I always get that green grammar squiggly line when I use lay or lie!
It’s a tough one!
Thank you so much for this. I’ve had these two mixed up in my head for the entirety of my life, going on instinct rather than grammatical sense. Now, I feel confident I’ll know what from wherefore–or rather, lay from lie.
You’re welcome. This is definitely one of the tougher word pairs to keep straight. I’m glad you found this article helpful.
thank you for the lay and lie syndrome. I found it very helpful. I appreciate all your efforts. A very happy Christmas.
You’re very welcome.
A difficult pair of words. And add into that, the telling of untruths, it’s even worse!, the past tense of which is lied!
Yes, one word, many meanings!
Thanks for the quick lesson, I apparently, needed it.
My grammer needs work! Ugh.
I find that the study of grammar is the work of a lifetime. In other words, it never ends. But it’s a worthy pursuit.
As a curious side note, do any other verbs in the English language go through a similar conversion when referring to a direct object. For example, if I were to convert the verb ‘write’ the same way as lay/lie, “I write.” could be come, “I wrate the fantasy series, Generations of Legends.” I can’t think of any other verbs that follow this nonsense conversion. Thanks in advance!
All irregular verbs have unusual conjugations. Do a search online for “irregular verbs” and you’ll see some odd constructions. You might also want to research the etymology of these words as there is often a logical explanation. I know such verbs also exist in Spanish and French (and probably most other languages as well).
“I write” becomes “I wrote” in the past tense.
play/played <--regular verb. There are many words that don't take -ed for the past tense. These are irregular verbs: speak/spoke run/ran ride/rode eat/ate buy/bought
This is one of my pet peeves! My trick is to substitute “place” for “lay”. If it still makes sense, use “lay”; if it doesn’t, use “lie”. Example: “Lay down in bed” — “place in bed” does not make sense! “Lay the book on the table” — “place the book on the table” does make sense! Unfortunately, just this weekend I was chatting with two college students about pet peeves, and I mentioned this one of mine. They both said that the correct way sounds wrong to them. They have already heard the wrong usage too many times!
Thanks, Mary. That’s a great trick to help people remember “lay” or “lie.” I don’t get too upset about people using them incorrectly. That’s the nature of language. It evolves organically based on the way people use words. Eventually, incorrect “street use” becomes the norm and makes its ways into the books. While it can be frustrating for us writers, especially when words are in the process of changing, I think it’s a healthy to keep pushing the language forward.
What about ‘lain’?
“Lain” is the past participle of “lie,” a form that is commonly used in perfect verb tenses–tenses with “have,” “had,” or “will have” forming part of the verb. I have run, I had spoken, I will have eaten – all perfect tenses.
If you express this idea with “lie” (meaning recline) you combine these words with “lain.” I have lain around the house all day. When it was all said and done, I had lain on the floor for the whole session. If I finish this yoga class, I will have lain on this mat for one hour every day.
Sounds pretty lame, and it doesn’t come up in writing or speech much. I don’t worry much about it.
Will definitely bookmark this. As a writer, this confuses me too especially when my brain is too tired to function.
Hi Greg, I agree: “lay or lie” is one of the more confusing grammar constructs. Keep writing!
Thanks a lot for clearing this…today I came on this site accidentally and I find it very useful, keep it up. You are doing a great work 😊👍if I do any error in above sentences then please correct me🙏
Thanks for your kind words, Kartavya. I’m sorry, but I do not correct people’s comments here at Writing Forward.