Lay vs Lie – Keeping Tricky Verb Forms Straight

There are some grammar rules and mnemonic devices that can help you know when to use lay vs lie in your writing.

For English writers, learning how to use “lay” and “lie” correctly is the mark of a skilled writer. Sadly, this combination presents problems for writers all too often, especially since they are commonly misused in spoken English.

In fact, in spoken English, “lay” and “lie” are often used interchangeably, and most writers don’t know the difference. The same is true for social media postings. In formal writing, however, getting them right is important.

Thankfully, there are some tricks writers can use to tell the difference between lay vs. lie and get them right every time. 

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Lay vs Lie – A Question of Meaning

Lay vs lie – keeping tricky verb forms straight

Before diving into the different uses of “lay” vs “lie,” first take a look at the present tense of these two verbs.

The verb “lay” means “to put or set an item down.” The verb “lie” means “to be or to move to a horizontal position.”

Thus, someone could lay their glasses on their nightstand before they lie down to sleep.

Defining “Lay”

“To lay” is a verb that means “to put something down.” “Lay” is a transitive verb. This means every version of lay must also have a direct object, which tells what was “laid down.” 

The present tense of “to lay” is “lays.” Past tense and past participle are both “laid,” while present participle is “laying.”

Example Sentences for “Lay”

Yesterday, the teacher laid a small gift on each student’s desk

Sometimes seeing a word used in a sentence makes it easier to understand. Here are some example sentences for the transitive verb “to lay.”

  • I lay my book down to pay attention to my child. (present tense)
  • The dog lays his bone in his bed. (present tense)
  • Yesterday, the teacher laid a small gift on each student’s desk. (past tense)
  • He is laying a trap for the mouse. (present participle)
  • The cat laid a mouse at the foot of his owner as a trophy. (past participle)

Each of these sentences has an object (book, bone, gift, trap and mouse), which is a key indicator that the writer needs to use a version of “to lay.”

Defining “Lie”

The word “to lie” has two meanings. The first meaning, and the one most commonly confused with “to lay” is “to recline or rest in a horizontal position.” This use is an intransitive verb, which has no direct object

The past tenses of “lie” is “laid” or “lay.” The past participle is “lain” or “laid,” while the present participle is “lying.” Because “lay” is one of the conjugations of “to lie,” the confusion between the two words is understandable.

“To lie” can also mean “to tell an untruth.” This definition does not get confused with “to lay” because it is not used in the same context. However, this form of “to lie” is also an intransitive verb.

Example Sentences for “Lie”

These examples use “lie” correctly in a sentence:

  • I lie in bed waiting for my alarm to go off. (present tense)
  • The dog lies on his back in his bed. (present tense)
  • The other night, I lay down to sleep, only to be awoken by a loud noise outside. (past tense)
  • He has lain on the couch every afternoon since starting his new job. (past participle)
  • The toddler is lying in his bed crying that he is not tired. (present participle)

“Lay” and “Lie” in Pop Culture

Sometimes looking at popular pop culture references can help writers keep tricky verb forms straight. Unfortunately, sometimes songwriters also get things wrong.

  • Bob Dylan’s song “Lay Lady Lay” asks the lady to “lay across his brass bed.” Since this use means lying in a resting position, the proper use would be “lie.”
  • Miley Cirus wrote “Get It Right” and indicated she was “laying in this bed all day.” Again, no direct object means she should have been “lying in this bed all day.”
  • Simon and Garfunkel actually got it right in “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” This song contains the line ” Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.” The object, “me,” means this in fact should be “lay.”

Telling The Difference Between Lay Vs Lie

If popular songwriters can’t keep the verb lie and the verb lay straight, how can writers use them correctly? These two words are definitely tricky, so writers need a little help to use them well. Some simple tricks to help include these:

If the sentence has a direct object, it needs a form of “lay.” If not, it needs “lie.”

Consider how the words sound and use a mnemonic trick to help. “Lay” has a long “a” sound similar to “place,” and you lay something down when you place it somewhere. “Lie” has a long “I” sound similar to “recline,” and when you lie down you are reclining. You may also find our who vs. whom explainer useful.

Learn the Conjugations

Because the past tense of “lie” is “lay,” writers must learn the conjugations to keep these verbs straight. The conjugations of “to lay” are:

  • Lay (present tense)
  • Laid (past tense)
  • Laying (present participle and paired with am, is or are)
  • Laid (past participle and paired with has, have had)

The conjugations of “to lie” are:

  • Lie (present tense)
  • Lay (past tense)
  • Lying (present participle and paired with am, is or are)
  • Lain (past participle and paired with has, have or had)

Keep in mind that the past tense and past participle forms of “to lie” meaning “to tell an untruth is “lied.”

The Final Word on Lay vs Lie

“Lay” and “lie” are going to trip writers up because they are just too similar. However, “lay” always has a direct object, while “lie” does not. Using this trick, writers can start to get them right, as long as they watch for the tricky past tense form of “lie” that is the same as the present tense form of “lay.” If you liked this post, you might also find our insinuate vs. infer vs. imply explainer helpful.

FAQs on Lay vs Lie

How can a writer know if they should use laid or lay for a past tense verb?

This is the hardest differentiator between “lay” and “lie” because the past tense form of “lie” is “lay.” If the sentence has a direct object, use the past tense of “lay,” which is “laid.” If it does not, use the past tense of “lie” which is “la”.

Do “lay” and “lie” have different meanings?

Yes, lay means “to set a thing down” and “lie” means “to recline.” “Lie” can also mean “to tell an untruth.”

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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.