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.