Lay and Lie

Commonly Confused Words

Group of people lying down sleeping, Aerial View
Bernhard Lang / Getty Images

Because the meanings and the principal parts of lie and lay are similar, these two verbs are often confused.

Definitions

The transitive verb lay means to put or place; it takes a direct object.
Tip: To lay is to place. (Listen for the a sound.)

The intransitive verb lie means to rest or recline; it does not take a direct object.
Tip: To lie is to recline. (Listen for the i sound.)

Don't confuse the past and past participle forms of these verbs:

  • lay (present), laid (past), and laid (past participle)
  • lie (present), lay (past), and lain (past participle)

See the usage notes below. Also see: Irregular Verbs.


Examples

  • "Now lay the back of the shirt flat on the board and iron out any creases in whatever style you see fit." 
    (Nick Harper, Man Skills. Michael O'Mara Books, 2006)
     
  • "In politics, strangely enough, the best way to play your cards is to lay them face upward on the table."
    (H. G. Wells)
     
  • "The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won't get much sleep."
    (Woody Allen, Without Feathers, 1980)
     
  • "The lion lay down beside them to watch, but he also was so weary with the fight, that he called to the bear and said, 'Lie down near me, I must sleep a little: if anything comes, waken me.' Then the bear lay down beside him."
    (Grimm Brothers, "The Two Brothers")
     
  • The pumpkin that I had laid on the porch lay there for a month.
     
  • "On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of countless millions who at the dawn of victory lay down to rest, and in resting died."
    (Adlai E. Stevenson)
     
  • "Field flowers no longer grow amid the crops in England’s fields, but once the backhoes are withdrawn from roadworks, poppies spring from the disturbed ground. The seed they have grown from blew off the fields maybe a generation ago, and has lain in the soil ever since, waiting for someone or something to break the sod."
    (Germaine Greer, "How to Bring a Devastated Forest Back to Life." Smithsonian, May 2014)
     

    Corrections

    "English department: from a television review, page 18, December 10: 'The victim lays on the ground, sobbing.' That should be 'The victim lies on the ground,' or if the past tense is wanted, 'The victim lay on the ground.'"
    (Corrections and Clarifications, The Guardian, December 14, 1999)
     

    Usage Notes

    • "A frustrating pair. Here's the deal. In the present tense, lay is a transitive verb, meaning it takes a direct object: you lay something down. Lie doesn't take a direct object: something just lies there. If you're tired of holding something, you should lay it down; if you're not feeling well, you should lie down. (Of course, I'm excluding lie, 'tell an untruth'--this is just the reclining lie.)

      "Not too bad: if this were the whole deal, there'd be nothing to worry about. But it gets messier, because the past tense of lay is laid, and the past tense of lie is, well, lay."
      (Jack Lynch, "Lay versus Lie," The English Language: A User's Guide. Focus Publishing, 2008)
       
    • "There have been some difficulties with grammar since I last wrote. Lay is a transitive verb (I lay down a case of claret every month; she laid the table), lie an intransitive one (he lies over there; she lay in bed until noon). Do not confuse them."
      (Simon Heffer, "Style Notes 28: February 12, 2010." The Daily Telegraph)
       
    • A 19th-Century Language Lesson
      "I will here give you a specimen of the errors which are sometimes committed by those who do not understand Grammar. This last-mentioned Verb, to lie, becomes, in the past time, lay. Thus: 'Dick lies on a bed now, but some time ago, he lay on the floor.' This Verb is often confounded with the Verb to lay, which is an active Verb, and which becomes, in its past time, laid. Thus: 'I lay my hat on the table today, but, yesterday, I laid it on the shelf.'"
      (William Cobbett, A Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters, 1818)
       
    • A Lost Cause?
      "If the grammarians and the schoolmasters and the schoolmarms and the usage writers have succeeded in largely establishing the transitive-intransitive distinction between lay and lie in standard discursive prose, they have not done so well in speech. . . .

      "Notwithstanding the belief of some that social judgments can be solidly based on language use, the lay-lie shibboleth may be changing its status. For instance, several commentators, such as Evans 1957, Follett 1966, and Flesch 1983, are perfectly willing to give the distinction up; Bolinger 1980 thinks it is already a lost cause not worth defending; Coperud 1970, 1980 judges the consensus of his experts to be that at least some uses of lay for lie are verging on the standard. Flesch even goes so far as to recommend using lay for lie if it comes naturally to you.

      "If lay 'lie' is on the rise socially, however, it is likely to be a slow rise, as indignant letters to the editor attest. Bolinger observes sensibly that if you have invested some effort in learning the distinction, you will not want to admit that you have wasted your time. And by far the largest part of our printed evidence follows the schoolbook rules. On the other hand, evidence also shows no retreat of intransitive lay in oral use. So what should you do? The best advice seems to be Bolinger's.

      "Many people use lay for lie, but certain others will judge you uncultured if you do. Decide for yourself what is best for you."
      (Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster, 2002)


      Idiom Alerts

      • Lay It on the Line
        The idiom lay it on the line means to say something directly and honestly. 
        "Sam Rayburn, the longtime Democratic speaker of the House, later said of Marshall's congressional testimony, ''He laid it on the line. He would tell the truth even if it hurt his cause.'"
        (Nicolaus Mills, Winning the Peace. Wiley, 2008)
         
      • Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
        The expression let sleeping dogs lie means to discourage someone from talking about a problem that others have apparently forgotten.
        "The police have asked us no further questions and the unfortunate gossip in the town has subsided. We begin to think that it may be better to let sleeping dogs lie.”
        (Leo Bruce [Rupert Croft-Cooke], Such Is Death, 1963)
         


      The Lighter Side of Lay and Lie

      "Lie and lay offer slips to the pen
      That have bothered most excellent men:
      You can say that you lay
      In bed—yesterday;
      If you do it today, you're a hen!"
      (Christopher Morley, "The Unforgivable Syntax," 1919)

      Practice

      (a) The dog sleeps on the couch, and the cats always _____ curled up under the table.

      (b) Don't shout when you _____ your cards down.

      (c) Linda _____ down for a nap after yoga last night.

      (d) "So great was the noise during the day that I used to _____ awake at night listening to the silence." (Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington. Houghton Mifflin, 1988)

      (e) "Rosie scratched about, turned over a sack, and revealed a stone jar of cider. . . . Huge and squat, the jar _____ on the grass like an unexploded bomb."
      (Laurie Lee, Cider With Rosie, 1959)

      Answers to Practice Exercises: Lay and Lie

      (a) The dog sleeps on the couch, and the cats always lie curled up under the table.

      (b) Don't shout when you lay your cards down.

      (c) Linda lay down for a nap after yoga last night.

      (d) "So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence."
      (Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington. Houghton Mifflin, 1988)

      (e) "Rosie scratched about, turned over a sack, and revealed a stone jar of cider.

      . . . Huge and squat, the jar lay on the grass like an unexploded bomb."
      (Laurie Lee, Cider With Rosie, 1959)