Lay vs. Lie: Easy Ways to Remember the Difference

Are you having trouble deciding whether to use lie or lay in conversation or writing? You're not alone! The verbs "to lay" and "to lie" are two of the trickiest verbs to choose between. It's not at all unusual for people to mix up these terms, but it is possible to tell them apart. Find out exactly what you need to know to easily remember the difference between lay vs. lie.

lay pencil versus lie down lay pencil versus lie down
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Understanding the Meanings of Lay and Lie

The words lay and lie have similar definitions, but their meanings are not identical. When learning the difference between lay and lie, it's important to first master the way these two words should be used in the present tense.

What Does Lay Mean?

In the present tense, 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.

  • 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?

What Does Lie Mean?

In the present tense, the verb "to lie" means to take on a recumbent position, typically stretched out on one's 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.

  • I need to lie down and relax!
  • You should lie flat on the floor to stretch your sore muscles.
  • I decided to lie in bed with the baby because we aren't feeling well.

Simple Trick To Remember the Difference

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. You can avoid making that error with a simple memory trick.

  • Lie has an "i" in it. If you were to lie down flat, your body would be in the shape of a capital "I." So, the word with the "i" goes along with the I-shaped position.
  • Lay has an "a" in it. It means to place something. The word place also has an "a" in it. When you're talking about placing an object, use the word with an "a" (lay).

Common Errors When Choosing Lie or Lay

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.

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Dishes 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 - I lie the dish in the dishwasher.
  • correct - I lay the dish in the dishwasher. 


Resting on the Sofa

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.

  • incorrect - Please lay down on the sofa until you feel better.
  • correct - Please lie down on the sofa until you feel better. 


Confusing Conjugations: Past and Present Tense

Once you've mastered the difference between lay and lie in the present tense, you'll next need to focus on how to conjugate the verbs into other tenses, which adds a layer of difficulty. The conjugations of the verbs "to lay" and "to lie" are particularly confusing. This is because lie turns into lay in the past tense. In other words, the past tense form of the verb lie is exactly the same as the present tense verb lay.

Verb

Present

Past

to lie

lie

lay

to lay

lay

laid

Present and Past Examples of "To Lie"

The following examples represent correct usage of the verb "to lie" in present vs. past tense. Notice that these terms refer to being in a recumbent position.

  • present tense - I lie down for a nap every day at noon.
  • past tense - I lay down for a nap every day when I was three years old.

The fact that it is correct to use lay when you are talking about a person being in a recumbent position in the past tense can lead many people to erroneously believe that lay can also refer to a person or animal's position in the present tense. This is one of the most common mistakes in the English language.

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Present and Past Examples of "To Lay"

Review examples of how "to lay" is conjugated in the present and past tense. These examples are talking about placing objects somewhere.

  • present tense - I lay the book on the table each time the phone rings.
  • past tense - I laid the book on the table to get the phone.

Notes that lay is only used in present tense when talking about the placement of an object.

Lay vs. Lie: Past and Present Participle

The verbs "to lie" and "to lay" can also be conjugated into present participle and past participle forms. These conjugations should be paired with appropriate auxiliary verbs. Armed with this information, when you're choosing between lying down or laying down, you'll know that the correct choice is lying because you need the past participle form of "to lie" to refer to the recumbent position.

VerbPresent ParticiplePast Participle
to lielyinglain
to laylayinglaid

Participle Conjugation Examples of "To Lie"

The examples below illustrate how to correctly use the verb "to lie" in present participle forms. Notice these still refer to being in a prone position.

  • present participle - I will be lying down until it is time to leave.
  • past participle- I had lain down for a nap when the phone rang.

Participle Conjugation Examples of "To Lay"

The following examples illustrate the participle conjugations of "to lay" in sentence form. Notice how these still refer to placing objects.

  • present participle - I am laying your receipt on the desk right now.
  • past participle - I had laid the book on the table when suddenly, the phone rang.
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How to Choose Between Lie or Lay

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.

Practice Makes Perfect

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. Depending on your score, you may want to spend some time studying some more commonly confused terms to build an even stronger vocabulary.