Lay vs. Lie

We’re tackling one of the less obvious grammatical foibles today. Did you know that there is a difference between lay and lie? Because there is! Let’s explore.

lay vs lie

The Difference Between Lay and Lie

Other than the definition of “to tell an untruth,” lay and lie are often used interchangeably. But lay is a transitive verb, meaning it requires a subject and one or more direct objects. Lie, on the other hand, is an intransitive verb, which means that it doesn’t need an object.

But the Lay vs. Lie Conundrum Gets More Conundrumy

Here’s where it gets tricky: the past tense of lay is laid, and the past tense of lie is lay.

Ta-dah.

So if you wanted to say that you lay on the floor in the fetal position all day yesterday, that’s correct, because the verb is in the past tense. If you said that you lay in said position all day regularly, that would be wrong. There is no object in that sentence, so you want the intransitive verb in the present tense, which would be that you lie in the fetal position often.

Let’s look at the transitive verb. If you find yourself on the floor regularly, you may decide to take painkillers. Good for you! Way to be proactive. After you take a few, you decide to lay the bottle on the sink. Good for you again! You used the right form of the verb. A few hours later, you need another dosage. Do you remember that you laid the bottle on the sink? If you did, then not only will your body aches go away faster, but you also used the proper verb form.

PRACTICE

Someone is sick/injured/bawling/laughing hysterically on the floor. Write about it for fifteen minutes, using the right forms of lay/lie. Share your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • I thought the direct object referred to another object in the act of reclining, not what it was reclining on? In other words, in the present tense– I lie down on the floor, but I lay a book down on the floor (book being the direct object in the latter)…

    If I understand all this correctly, this example you used is correct, but not for the reason you stated: “So if you wanted to say that you (the sub­ject) lay on the floor (the object) in the fetal posi­tion all day yes­ter­day, that’s cor­rect.” Floor is not the object. You would use ‘lay’ however, because you’re in the past tense talking about something you did in the past and lay is the past tense of lie.

    And this is correct, but because you’re using the present tense of lie, not because there’s no object: “There is no object in that sen­tence, so you want the intran­si­tive verb in the present tense, which would be that you lie in the fetal posi­tion often.”

    • Angela, you’re absolutely right. The parentheses were inserted by Joe before the post went live. Anything in a prepositional phrase is not a direct object, so the reason you’re using lay is because it’s in the past tense.

      Shame on you, Joe.

      • Sarkis Antikajian

        Thanks, Liz.

        She felt the tightness in her chest, it wasn’t the first time. She knew what to do. She lay on the couch and took the pill box that she laid in the drawer by the couch. She took a pill and placed it under her tongue then laid the pill bottle on the table. She remembered that first time she ever lay her eyes on a physician. It was the first time that she felt that tightness, she couldn’t breathe, She didn’t know if it was a stroke or not she picked up the receiver and called 911. They told her to lie down and help will be there shortly. She laid the receiver on the phone and waited panic stricken.

        • Sarkis Antikajian

          I should have said. She remembered that first time she ever laid her eyes on a physician.

  • So “Now I lay me down to sleep” is correct because the speaker is laying herself down? But in fact, she is just lying down? This is why I just avoid these words. Next, will you expound sit and set for the southerners among us? 🙂

    • I like that technique…avoid those words!

      • Yvette Carol

        I try too but sometimes its unavoidable. And I was always sure I had it wrong!!

  • Okay, I’m going to try this before I go inside and lie down, but first I will need to lay my bottle of pain pills on the window sill.

    I was tiling the kitchen floor and got a crick (for my southern friends), in my back. So I lay down on the unfinished, cold concrete floor. I fell asleep and so I lay there for a couple of hours. When I woke up the crick had become very painful and necessitated that I take the pain pills, which I had laid on the window sill a while ago.

    Or…maybe I just got a pain in my back and so I fell asleep on the cold, concrete floor for a few hours. Then, when I woke up, I grabbed a bottle of pain killers and took some, and that’s why I can never remember the difference between lay and lie.

    Now I’m really confused.

  • Liz and Joe, now I know why my ninth grade English teacher pounded this into our heads over and over again, until I had to lay my head on my desk from the conundrumus state of the lesson! Got that right, didn’t I?

  • I love the way you put out there for the people that didn’t understand the different. I can admit that it is these tricky little words that make people stumble or right out don’t use them. (Avoid) I’m glad we have blogs like this one to inform and help people like me and others to become better aware when we writing.

    Thnaks

  • Karen S. Elliott

    Every time I want to use ‘lay’ or ‘lie,’ I remember my mother, still! She told me, “Chickens lay eggs.” I see that stupid chicken in my head every time I want to say or write ‘lay’ or ‘lie.’

  • S Fummerton

    When I was a literacy tutor, I told people who wanted me to help them this simple rule.
    “Lie” is intransitive. “Lay” is transitive. Transtive means it requires an object. So, you can lie down on the bed for a nap. But, you lay a parcel on the table. Or a carpet. Or, and I say this with some trepidation, you can lay a person. Don’t laugh too hard or long. When I said this to a young man who had sought my help with literacy, he got it right away. He knows “lay” requires an object because “to lay” is a transitive verb. “To lie” is intranstive, meaning it has no object. You can lie in wait, but you can’t lie an object or person.

  • ML Reads and Writes.

    You lie, you recline
    You lay,you place
    Lie – recliiiiiiiine
    lay – plaaaaaaaace
    As I lie in bed, I lay my book on the stand.

    • Bangalorekar Ranganath

      Superb.

  • Ugh. I will rearrange a sentence to death to avoid “lay” and “lie.” I get the very basic “lay” is to place, “lie” is to do it and “Now I lay me” you’re playing yourself. But past tense or anything other than simple, easy and boom that sentence is going out the window and a new one will be in place of it. Thanks for explaining it, Liz. Maybe I’ll get it some day… or at least lay this page in my bookmarks 😉
    Katie

    • Yvette Carol

      Yeah Katie I’ve done a lot of that too. 🙂

  • I went above the 15 minutes (5 minutes above to be exact) but I just had to finish the story. Anyway, below is my take on this exercise. Hope I did it right (aside from going over 15 mins)! 🙂

    ***

    I heard him about halfway past the gate. I knew it was bad, really bad. I rushed to the door and I knocked frantically. James, the butler, was the one who opened the door for me.

    “Glad to see you doctor,” he shouted over the raucous laughter. He took my coat and my walking stick and said “the master is really not well.”

    “Where is he?” I raised my voice just to let him hear. The entire inside of the mansion was filled with his laughter.

    “We laid him down on a sofa inside the living room. Master Richard is trying hard to restrain him.”

    I gave him a nod and quickly rushed to the living room leaving James behind. I’ve been a good friend of the Walters and I’ll be damned if I let Walter Senior to die. My resolved faded though the moment I saw the poor old man.

    That was probably the most severe case of laughititis that I ever saw. His face was a sickly shade of purple, from the lack of oxygen. I could see the veins on his neck and forehead. Above the man was his son, Richard Walters Junior, trying to hold his father down.

    “My God,” I uttered.

    “Oh Doctor!” I saw Alice ran to me with tears streaking down her heart-shaped face. “Help him! Help my father.”

    “What’s wrong with him doc?” I heard Richard’s voice shouting over the laughter of his dying father.

    “It—it’s a rare disease,” I answered. I laid down my medical bag on the floor, just by the sofa. I knelt down and I inspected Richard Walter Senior’s face. “It’s called laughititis. I don’t know how he got it but it looks bad. It’s a miracle he hasn’t died of asphyxiation yet.”

    “Will you be able to save him?” I looked up at the son and I could see the struggle in his face. Clearly, trying to restrain his father took a lot of effort. The old man was strong, really strong, for his age.

    “Yes, yes, of course I’ll do my best.” I answered. “Tell me what happened as I work on him.”

    Alice was the one who told me the story. “Father was acting like normal the entirety of the day. But about after dinner, he started to act strange. He told me he had a bad case of stomachache and it must have been from something he had eaten. He told me he was going to lie down on the sofa.”

    “I got worried when James told me he heard father groaning in pain and so I brought him some medicine I got from town. They told me it works best for stomachaches. I rushed downstairs but when I got to father he was…laughing. He told me he never felt any better and he had no use of the medicine. But still, I was worried, so I laid the medicine on the coffee table and I told him to take it if he starts to feel ill once more.”

    “Where’s the medicine? Give it to me!” I shouted. My heart started to pound in my chest. I prayed hard to the kind Lord. That medicine better not have it, I thought to myself, otherwise the poor old man is as good as dead!

    James quickly handed the brown bottle to me. On it was a label and written on the label were the ingredients used to concoct the medicine. Immediately, I saw the words: Apple Cider Vinegar.

    I felt the strength seeped out of me. My hand dropped to the ground and the bottle slipped from my fingers. “I—I’m sorry,” was all I could say.

  • Yvette Carol

    Thank you for this! Because I’ve never been sure and have to put my hand up for being one of those idiots who has indeed used lie and lay interchangeably.
    Let’s see if I’ve got it now….

    Curled up hedgehog-like, she lay the ring beside her on the floor and then gave in to the sobbing.
    She wasn’t sure how long she had laid there. But if she didn’t get up now she might just lie in this position unchanged the rest of the day. And that just wouldn’t be right.

  • Puffy

    Mathis was lying on the floor, laughing his butt off. I shook my head as I lay a glass of orange juice on the coffee table. “What the heck are you laughing at?” I asked, annoyed.

    “Well, you know what they say when you go ‘lie’ or ‘lay’ and people get confused?” he shouted, still laughing hysterically.

    “I guess?”

    “I STILL DON’T UNDERSTAND.”

    “And you’re laughing WHY exactly?”

    Mathis sat up, still chuckling. “I don’t know. You help me find out, Morgan.”

    I shook my head. I don’t understand this guy, and I probably never will. “I’m gonna go lie down on the couch. I have a headache.”

    “Aren’t you gonna get the juice you laid on the table?”

    “You drink it.”

    And with that, Mathis started laughing wildly again. I’ll never understand why.

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  • Wow. Thanks. I definitely needed this one.

    • It is a conquerable issue. Just staple it to every page you write.

  • (To lay oneself down)

    Lie -> Lay -> Lain -> Lying

    (To lay an object down)
    Lay -> Laid -> Laid -> Laying

    Present, Past, Past Participle, and Infinitive

    I lie down. Then, I rose from where I lay. I knew I had lain there, for I was just lying there.

    I lay the thing down. I picked it up from where it laid. I looked back to where it had laid, and it was still laying there!

    That’s all I got.

    • WritingBoy

      All you’ve got?! Fantastic. Thank you.

  • Thought this was great.

  • Pingback: Lay vs. Lie | The Written Word Remains...()

  • LaCresha Lawson

    I am so glad that I read these articles! I have been confused for awhile. Thank you!

  • You just solved a problem for me! (Well, I think). A couple of weeks ago, I was researching this very point. I was writing a song (for Christmas, actually), and was trying to figure out if I could use ‘lay’ when talking about a person. Apparently I can, because ‘lay’ is the past tense of ‘lie’, which means it’ll still rhyme, and I can get away with it! Thanks from a grammar freak who wasn’t sure about breaking a rule for a song! 🙂

    • WritingBoy

      We should start a club. GFA. (Grammar Freaks Anon.)!

  • WritingBoy

    Thanks so much Joe. I love it when someone gets the whip out to enforce accuracy on grammar and syntax. As for me I often struggle with these issues and it’s very refreshing to have these mini lessons.

    Many squeal about this kind of ‘pedantry’. However, as Clive James once said (at least words to the effect); it is accuracy and correctness that makes language illuminate a subject or topic.

    Lastly, I can tell you, that anyone in a position of power couldn’t lie straight in bed!

  • I can read a 300-page book on string theory and say “Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense,” but a single paragraph on lay/lie/laid/lain leaves me dazed and confused and questioning whether or not English is the language for me.

  • WritingBoy

    The English language is the most sought after and wonderful language on the earth. I only got to do eight years of school. So I can claim I’m not at all well educated.

    However, the only reason people find this issue ‘dazing’ and ‘confusing’ is, that, they feel the rules don’t apply to them and just moan about the difficulty of its comprehension. Or they simply lack the application and focus to understand.

    It is incomprehensible to me that people want to be ‘writers’ and then can’t be bothered learning the rules that govern this craft. Mind you, the bulk of pulp fiction is not worth much more than using for compost. So, to me at least, it’s perfectly understandable, when any allusion is made to accurate and structured writing, it brings weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth from the chatterati around the traps.

    As mentioned you only have to read a lot of the crapola that is shoveled up under the pretext of ‘writing’ to understand that so many ‘writers” minds are cesspools of trivia, tripe and trash.