Last week I went over the differences between lie and lay with my students. As I warned them, it’s probably the hardest grammar rule out there. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.
There are two basic steps:
1) Decide what meaning you want.
- “Lie” means “to rest or recline.”*
- “Lay” means “to put something down.”
2) Decide which form of the verb you need.
- present tense
- present participle (the -ing version)
- past tense
- past participle (used with helping verbs like have, has, and had)
The tricky part is that lie and lay are both irregular verbs, meaning that they don’t take the usually -ed ending for the past and the past participle.
Let’s look at lie (meaning “to rest or recline”) first.
- Present tense examples: Jenny lies in bed whenever she is sick. The pencils lie on the table over there.
- Present participle example: The papers are lying all over the floor.
- Past tense example: Jim lay in bed yesterday because he had the flu. (Not: Jim laid in bed.)
- Past participle example: The twins have lain in bed all week with the chicken pox. (Not: The twins have laid in bed all week.)
Now let’s look at lay (meaning “to put something down”).
- Present tense example: Lay your books on the desk, please.
- Present participle example: He is laying tile at his mother’s house.
- Past tense example: I laid the baby in the crib.
- Past perfect example: She has laid the old newspapers in a bin.
Notice the forms of lay always have an object (animate or inanimate) after them (books, tile, baby, newspapers). There has to be a “something” that is being set down.
On the other hand, if there’s no object and no actually movement, you want a form of lie.
*Lie can also mean “to tell an untruth.” However, we never seem to mess up that verb because it takes the regular -ed ending for past tense. (He lied. She has lied, too.)