Lay vs Lie or Laying vs Lying
Even though they do not look that similar, lay and lie are two commonly confused words. The problem comes with the fact that lay and lie have similar meanings, but it becomes even more complicated as lay is also used as the past tense of lie.
Let’s break down the meanings of the two words lay and lie first. Note that both words have other meanings than what is described below. These will be discussed later.
Lie is a verb meaning to recline in a horizontal position on a supporting device like a bed or couch.
- I want to lie on my bed every Sunday morning reading the paper before the kids wake up.
- Chickie, the cat with four white socks, likes to lie on the couch nearest the fire.
Lay is a verb meaning to put something down on a surface, normally in a gentle manner.
- If you would kindly lay the books out on the table, I will choose which one we will discuss.
- Would you like me to lay out your clothes for dinner, dear?
As you can probably can tell from the examples above, lay requires a direct object for the action of the verb (the book, the clothes), whereas lie does not, i.e. it is you (or the cat, the dog, your brother etc.) doing the action of lying down. Therefore, to lie (down) is something you do, whereas you lay down something (not yourself). Lay is a transitive verb, meaning it needs a direct object for the action to be performed on. Lie is an intransitive verb, meaning it does not take a direct object for the action.
Here’s where it gets complicated: Lay is the past tense of lie. So, those examples of lie above could use lay in the past tense:
- I lay on my bed for hours last Sunday morning.
- The cat lay on the couch nearest the fire all day.
Confusion reigns, therefore, when people confuse the tenses of lie:
- I like to lay on my bed. Incorrect.
- I like to lie on my bed before dinner. Correct.
- Mom is going to lie down as she is feeling unwell. Correct.
- Mom is going to lay down as she is feeling unwell. Incorrect.
- We lie on the couch for hours yesterday. Incorrect.
- We lay on the couch for hours yesterday. Correct.
- He lied on the floor. Incorrect.
- He lay on the floor this morning before the school bus came. Correct.
What Does Lay Mean?
Lay is used as a verb to mean to set something down gently or carefully, allowing it to assume a resting place on a surface. In this sense, lay is an action that you do with something, i.e. place something down. It needs a direct object (a book, a blanket etc.) for the action to be performed on. As we have seen above, lay is also the past tense of lie.
Other meanings of lay:
Lay can be used formally and colloquially in the following ways:
As a verb meaning to produce an egg from a body:
- An ostrich can lay up to 60 eggs a year.
- The turtles return to the beach to lay eggs each summer.
As a verb meaning to express:
- Did the police lay out the charges against the subject?
- Wilson will lay the blame on the teachers rather than accept he made a mistake.
As a verb meaning to bet on something:
- I’d happily lay a bet on that horse.
When to Use Lay + Original Examples
We use lay as a verb when we are talking about putting something down on to another surface. Remember that lay is a verb, so it is subject to conjugation and agreement.
- We lay an extra blanket on the bed when it’s cold.
- Lay those papers neatly out on my desk, would you?
- He lays all his cards out on the floor to get a better look at them.
- She laid a wreath on her father’s grave yesterday.
- Do not lay a hand on me. *
*To lay a hand is a phrasal verb, meaning to hit or to strike violently.
We also use lay as the past tense of lie:
- You lay in bed all day yesterday. Were you ill?
- The books lay on top of each other until I reorganized them.
Phrases using lay:
- He will be laid to rest in the military cemetery. Meaning: to bury.
- The business was doing so poorly, the whole team got laid off. Meaning: to be fired.
What does Lie Mean?
Lie means to assume a horizontal position as a resting place. For example, if we go to sleep, we will need to lie (down) on a bed first. In this sense, lie is something that you or something else does – the verb does not need a direct object.
Other meanings of lie:
As a verb to meaning to tell an untruth or say something that is false: It is important to note that this version of the word lie has a different past tense – lied.
- Joey’s mom told him not to lie but rather to always tell the truth.
- If you lie to me again, I won’t believe you.
- Joanna always lies when she is caught cheating.
- George lied about his age; he was actually born in 1947.
- Sally and Dan never lied about leaving the lights on. It turned out to be true.
As a verb to meaning to stay or be in a certain state:
- Since the war, the building lies in ruins.
- The entire neighbourhood lies in disrepair.
As a verb meaning to reside in or to be found in:
- The answer lies in how she asked the question.
As a verb meaning to be in a specific direction, location or position:
- Portland lies right on the coast.
- Denmark lies 50 miles north of here.
When to Use Lie + Original Examples
We use lie as a verb when we are talking about ourselves or something else assuming a horizontal position on a couch, bed, floor etc. Remember that lie is a verb, so it is subjected to conjugation and agreement.
- The cat and dog often lie together on my bed.
- Dad likes to lie on the sofa when watching football.
- Mom lies on top of her towel on the beach.
- If you’re sick, lie down.
- She lies on the floor when doing yoga.
We also use lie as a verb, meaning to speak falsely or create untruths:
- The President lied about his tax returns.
- Little children often tell lies about silly things.
- I won’t ever lie again.
Phrases using lie:
- At this point of the season, it’s hard to know what will lie ahead. Meaning: to happen.
- Let sleeping dogs lie. Meaning: to leave things where they are (metaphorically), especially if taking an action would create a controversy.
- The fact that I hurt Marc’s feelings is going to lie heavy on me. Meaning: to make me uncomfortable.
Laying vs. Lying
Just as lie and lay can get mixed up, there is a confusion with the present participles, laying and lying. The same rules apply as lie and lay, with lying being an action you perform and laying an action you preform on something.
- Ed was lying on the floor, kicking his legs in the air like a toddler.
- Jeannie was laying the books down, one by one on the table.
- I am lying down until this terrible cold goes away.
- We took care of Mom, gently laying a blanket over her when she fell asleep.
Phrases using lying:
- The police were lying in wait so they could catch the suspect in action. Meaning: to hide, waiting to catch or attack someone.
- Caren, you shouldn’t take that lying down. Meaning: accept an insult without argument or reaction.
Tips to Remember the Difference
Lay and lie are so commonly confused that there are many tricks to help you remember the difference. As we have seen, lie is an intransitive verb meaning recline horizontally. Lay is an intransitive verb meaning to place something down to rest.
- Lie = rec-LI-ne
- Lay = p-LA-ce
If you focus on li in recline and la in place, this should help you remember the difference between lie and lay.
Lay and lie, lying and laying are easily confused. The key to knowing the difference between them is through understanding transitive and intransitive verbs. Some verbs are both intransitive and transitive. However, lie is always an intransitive verb.
An intransitive verb – go, lie, die, arrive – never takes a direct object. The subject of the sentence alone does the going, lying, dying etc. An intransitive verb will make sense without a direct object.
A transitive verb – buy, lay, leave, take – must take a direct object. We think of it in the sense that the action is transferred on to something – the direct object. The subject of the sentence must buy, leave, lay or take something, or else the sentence won’t make sense.
Consider these final examples of lay and lie:
- She lies on the bed.
- She lays her head on the bed.
Both of those examples are in the present tense. Notice that in the second example, her head is the direct object of lays. Even though we are speaking of a body party, lay is correct because you are placing something (your head) on the bed. In the first example, there is no direct object, so lie is correct.
And in the past tense of lie and lay:
- She lies on the bed now, but yesterday she lay there.
- She lays her head on the bed now, but yesterday, she laid it there.