Mixing up “lay” and “lie”

By Maeve Maddox

A reader writes:

I have problems with lying and laying.  Is there an easy way to make sure I am using the right one?

The distinction is easy enough, but this particular usage is on the endangered list and may not survive into the next generation of English speakers.

Knowing the difference between lying and laying requires the speaker to recognize the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.

Verbs that describe actions are either transitive or intransitive.

A transitive verb takes a direct object.

The Latin prefix trans- means “across.” The action of the transitive verb carries across to a direct object. This direct object receives the action of the verb.

Ex. The man drives a truck.
The verb is drive. To determine whether the verb has a direct object, one asks “drives what?” In this example, there is an answer: drives a truck. The verb drives in this sentence is transitive. Something, “truck,” receives the action.

Some verbs are always transitive. Some are always intransitive. Many, like drive, may be either transitive or intransitive.

Ex. Every Sunday the family drives in the countryside.
If we apply the question “drives what?” to this sentence, we do not get an answer. Nothing in the sentence receives the action. There is no direct object so in this sentence drive is an intransitive verb. The action remains with the verb. (The phrase in the countryside tells where the family drives.)

The common confusion between the verbs lie and lay is understandable because the form lay exists in the conjugations of both verbs:

to lie – intransitive verb meaning “to recline; to rest horizontally”
Present: Today I lie on the bed.
Past: Yesterday I lay on the bed.
Present Perfect: I have lain on the bed all day.
Present Continuous: I am lying on the bed.

to lay – transitive verb meaning “to place; to put”
Present: Today I lay the book on the table.
Past: Yesterday I laid the book on the table.
Present Perfect: I have laid the book on the table.
Present Continuous: I am laying the book on the table.

Here are a few more illustrations of correct usage:

Lie down, Fido!
The accident victim lay in the street.
The spectators lay back in their seats to look at the sky.
Today it’s your turn to lay the table. I laid the table yesterday.

English has two other verbs that may confuse the issue further:

to lie – “to tell a falsehood” – generally intransitive:
Present: Today I lie about my age.
Past: Yesterday I lied about my age.
Present Perfect: I have lied about my age.
Present Continuous: I am lying about my age.

to lay – “to produce an egg” – may be transitive or intransitive
Present – The hens lay eggs. (transitive) The hens lay well. (intransitive)
Past – The hen laid three eggs. (transitive)
Present Perfect: The hen has laid an egg every day this week. (transitive)
Present Continuous: The hens are laying well this year. (intransitive)

Both forms of lay derive from an Old English verb meaning “to place on the ground” or “put down.” The two lie verbs come from two different Old English verbs, one meaning “to speak falsely,” and the other meaning “to rest horizontally.”

This is not our first post on lay/lie and probably won’t be the last. See this one from July 2007.

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8 Responses to “Mixing up “lay” and “lie””

  • Cassie Tuttle

    Lay and lie (and their conjugations) are indeed confusing. I used to teach a grammar/usage workshop at the law firm where I previously worked, and this was one of the trouble-makers I covered.

    I used a mneumonic with a PowerPoint illustration. I reminded the class of the adage, “Let sleeping dogs lie” and brought up on the PP an image of a dog lying down.

    Anytime I stumble with these words, I just think of that picture of the golden retriever, LYING (not laying) on the floor!

  • Deborah H

    I was taught this trick:
    “Lay” with a long a sound is like “Place” with a long a sound.
    “Lie” with a long i sound is like “Recline” with a long i sound.

  • Alex

    My trick is to always remember that Eric Clapton’s song “Lay Down Sally” is grammatically incorrect.

  • PreciseEdit

    Tricky, tricky verbs.

    Here’s the link to our article on using these correctly:
    http://preciseedit.com/ArticleLayandLie/tabid/196/Default.aspx

    While it’s not quite as technical as your post, readers may find it useful, especially when trying to use these verbs in tenses other than the present.

    As always, thanks for the great post.

  • Vin

    This is a tough one!

    I just started my own blog and need to work on improving my grammar. This blog is just what I need. Thanks for providing such a great resource!

  • JC

    “She was so drunk when we got home I just laid your sister on the couch.”

    Sometimes I think I should have said that I put her there.

  • Mary Connealy

    Some of this helps. A little. #5 is funny enough to remember.

  • Susan Kemp

    Thanks for new clarity on this ever-confusing issue. It was explained so clearly in my primary school grammar book, but wide-spread incorrect usage by even well-educated English-speaking people has caused me to doubt my memory. I should have kept that old grammar book. This site is a great find, equal to my bible, “The Elements of Style”, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York; Collier Macmillan Publishers, London; Collier Macmillan Canada, Ltd.) I have a 1979 edition. My copy states that the original author, William Strunk, lived from 1869 tot 1946 and gives 1935 as the date of copyright for a revised edition of “The Elements of Style”, catalogued under “English language – Rhetoric”. I read it regularly, but another read is due, as it probably deals with the issue of lay and lie.

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