Lie vs. Lay

by Cherie Tucker

Many people spend countless hours over a lifetime rewriting sentences to avoid having to use lie or lay, because they are never sure which is right.  Let’s clear it up.
Lie is verb that describes inaction.  It is a body a rest, inert, not moving, and incapable of doing anything to anything else.

Lay is an action verb.  You could substitute place (same la spelling), because both do something to something else.  The confusion between these two words often comes when we get into the past tense.
                                   LIE                                         LAY

Present tense               Lie (Lie down and rest.)          Lay (Lay the baby in the crib.)
Past tense                    Lay (He lay on the bed.)          Laid (They laid the new carpet.)
Past Participle             Lain (It’s lain there for days.)  Laid (The hen hasn’t laid any eggs.)                      
Present Participle        Lying (Try lying on your back.)Laying (You’re laying it wrong.)                        

Observe that you can lay something down, but you can’t lie anything down.  Lie is not an action verb; repeat, it doesn’t do anything to anything.

I know that Romance writers have a hard time with this word because of the colloquial use of the term laid.  I have seen a few books where in a hidden, leafy glen, the hero “lay her back gently in the cool grass.”  Wrong word here.  He actually laid her back gently.  To avoid this silliness, try placed or lowered, but not lay. 

 Here’s a true story that may help you see the difference.

Around the holidays a couple of years ago in England, workers were remodeling a dwelling when they came upon a sheet of paper just lying there in the attic.  On it, autographed to his good friend, were 57 seconds of music written by Beethoven! Someone must have laid it there ages ago, and it had lainthere undetected all these years.  I’m sure if the earlier homeowners had known what a treasure lay just up the stairs, the world would have heard about it years ago.

Remember, you can lay eggs or rubber, but you lie down to rest.  Consequently, if you say lay down to your doggie, you are asking it to produce feathers.


Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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