Writing Wednesday: Lie vs Lay

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.)

photo credit: Lucia Whittaker via photopin cc

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2 Responses to Writing Wednesday: Lie vs Lay

  1. This is a great explanation of Lay and Lie. I actually just gave up on these verbs and used “put” instead of lay so I wouldn’t have to deal with it! 🙂 I think I probably just used Lay wrong throughout my whole life it seems! Now I know. Thanks!

    • AJ Cattapan says:

      Hey, Mary Ann! Thanks for stopping by! I tell my students that everyone (even English teachers) mess this up from time to time. The truth is, most people don’t care as long as the meaning is clear.

      Of course, that causes my students to ask, “So why do you teach it to us?”

      And I reply, “Standardized tests, kids!” 🙂

      “Oh, and so you can sound smart when applying for jobs.” That assumes their potential bosses know the difference! The boss who wrote this post (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html) certainly would catch it.

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