Two of the trickiest verbs to use in English are "to lay" and "to lie." Some of the confusion comes from the definitions of each word, which are similar but not identical. Additional confusion enters when it's time to conjugate the verb into different tenses.
Wondering when to use lay or lie? This article will help you understand both aspects of these words so you can use them correctly in speaking and writing.
The verb "to lay" means to place something in a particular position. This most often means setting it down, perhaps on the ground or on a table. This verb is transitive, which means that it takes a direct object. In simple terms, "to lay" is an action you perform on something else. For example:
Sarah lays the pencil on the table when she is done writing.
Lay the vase gently on the table so we can fix the crack.
Could you please lay the pillows back on the sofa?
On the other hand, the verb "to lie" means to take on a recumbent position, typically stretched out on your back or side. This verb is intransitive, meaning that it does not take a direct object. It's usually an action people or animals perform on themselves. For example:
I need to lie down and relax!
You should lie flat on the floor to stretch your sore muscles.
I am lying in bed with the baby because we aren’t feeling well.
People sometimes confuse "lie" and lay" when it comes to these meanings, often using "lay" when referring to themselves and "lie" when referring to an object.
To get a sense of how to correctly use lie and lay in a sentence based on their meanings, take a look at these examples and their corrections:
INCORRECT: I lie the dish in the dishwasher.
CORRECT: I lay the dish in the dishwasher. In this case, the dish is the object that is placed in the dishwasher, so it takes the transitive verb "to lay".
INCORRECT: Please lay down on the sofa until you feel better.
CORRECT: Please lie down on the sofa until you feel better. In this case, a person is being told to place his or her own body on the sofa. "Lie" is the right verb here because there is no direct object and the meaning is to be recumbent, not to put an object somewhere.
The other layer of difficulty comes when you would like to use "lie" and "lay" in past tense. The conjugations of these verbs is confusing, because when you put them in the past tense, "lie" turns into "lay." Take a look at the chart below to see the present and past conjugations of each verb:
Take a look at these verb tenses in action to see how to use them correctly in each tense:
PRESENT: I lie down for a nap every day at noon.
PAST: I lay down for a nap every day when I was three years old.
PAST PARTICIPLE: I had lain down for a nap when the phone rang.
PRESENT: I lay the book on the table each time the phone rings.
PAST: I laid the book on the table to get the phone.
PAST PARTICIPLE: I had laid the book on the table when suddenly, the phone rang.
The fact that you can correctly use "lay" when you are talking about a person lying down in a recumbent position in the past tense leads many people to believe that "lay" can be used to talk about people in the present tense as well. This is one of the most common mistakes in the English language and one you need to get out of the habit of making.
Though people will still understand you if confuse the two, it's best to make the right choice, especially in formal writing, since the words are not technically interchangeable.
When proofreading your writing for correct usage of "lie" and "lay," it helps to ask yourself if you are talking about a person or a thing. If you want to talk about putting an object somewhere, use "lay" in the present tense and "laid" in the past tense. If you are talking about a person who is tired and needs to stretch out horizontally, you want to use the word "lie" in the present tense.
The trick to overcoming the confusion is to remember that "lay" is used in the past tense when you're talking about a person not a thing and it is used in the present tense when talking about an object.
With a bit of practice, you can master using "lie" and "lay correctly. Just keep in mind the difference between talking about an object and a person or animal, and you should be able to correct your writing in this area with no trouble at all. Ready for a little fun? See if you can master this Commonly Confused Words Worksheet.