• 3-minute read
  • 27th May 2016

Word Choice: Lay vs. Lie

The words ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ are an example of why, after a long day of proofreading, we sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better to scrap the English language and start again.

Until we remember how Esperanto panned out.

Esper-what now? Exactly.
Esper-what now? Exactly.

Anyway, the point is that ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ can be very confusing even for native English speakers. This is because ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ are separate (but similar) words, while the simple past tense of ‘lie’ is also ‘lay’.

Baffled? We don’t blame you. But hopefully you’ll feel a bit less so by the end of this blog post…

Lie (To Be Horizontal)

The verb ‘lie’ means to rest or place oneself in a horizontal position:

I was feeling dizzy, so I decided to lie down.

Either this was a slow work day, or somebody poisoned the coffee. [Photo: budgetplaces.com]
It gets trickier when we come to the past tense, since ‘lie’ is an irregular verb. The simple past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’:

The dizziness didn’t go away, so I lay in bed all day.

And just to make things more baffling, the past participle of ‘lie’ is ‘lain’:

Since getting dizzy, Mark has lain around doing nothing.

Lay (To Place Something Down)

As a verb in its own right, ‘lay’ typically means to place something down (or cause to lie down):

Machines were built that could lay up to a mile of new track in a day.

The past tense of ‘lay’ is ‘laid’, so use this term if you’re referring to something which has already been put down somewhere:

She laid down her gun, turned on her heel and left without a word.

The most important distinction between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ always requires a direct object, whereas ‘lie’ does not. This is because you always lay something down, but people can lie down by themselves.

Lie (To Say Something Untrue)

Another complication is that ‘lie’ has a second, unrelated use. As a verb, it means ‘say something untrue’:

Immanuel Kant said that it is always wrong to lie.

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As a noun, ‘lie’ can also be used to mean ‘an untruth’ (‘he told me a lie’). The past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lied’, so make sure not to confuse this with ‘laid’!

Lay or Lie?

Frankly, we’re not at all surprised these words are often confused and you shouldn’t feel bad if you struggle to remember all of the distinctions above.

However, as long as you recall the basic difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ you’ll be on the right track. Then, with a little practice, you’ll soon be conjugating the past tense of ‘lie’ like a pro!

Present Tense

Lie (Be Horizontal)

Lay (Put Something Down)

Lie (Say Something Untrue)

Past Simple




Past Participle





Comments (2)
Maureen O'Loghlen
28th October 2016 at 00:03
So, Bob Dylan wasn't being grammatically correct when he was singing, Lay, Lady, Lay. Lay across my big brass bed?
    Proofread My Document
    28th October 2016 at 09:34
    Nope. Not unless he was singing to a chicken, anyway. But we can probably forgive him a little poetic licence. - PI Blog Manager

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