Recently, I’ve seen and heard too many incidences of lay and lie being misused so I had to say something. I will do my best to explain the difference between the two and when each should be used.
Here are some examples of incorrect usage, followed by the proper word:
- Medical professionals: “I need you to lay down for me.” No, you need me to lie down for you.
- People talking: “I was laying in bed last night when….” No, you were lying in bed last night.
- The news: “The suspect was found laying at the bottom of a boat.” No, he was found lying at the bottom of a boat.
- As much as I like this song, it should be “I’m sick of lying down alone.”
So, what’s the correct usage?
The verb to lie, when used in the sense of reclining (as opposed to not telling the truth), is an intransitive verb, meaning it is used without an object. On the other hand, lay means to put or place something down, and requires a direct object because it is a transitive verb. For example, you lie down on the bed. He lays the cards on the table. (The cards being the direct object.) In the words of Grammar Girl, “you lay something down, and people lie down by themselves.”
If you find yourself wanting to use lay but aren’t sure if it should be lie, you can first ask yourself “lay what?” If the answer is yourself or another person, then you must mention who is being laid. (Hence, “Now I lay me down to sleep” is correct because “me” is the object.) If there isn’t anything to lay, then the word to use is lie. (“Now I lie down to sleep.)
This site has another tip to help you decide between lay or lie. Substitute the disputed word with a form of the verb “place,” and if it makes sense, use a form of lay.
Now it gets complicated because the past tense of lie is lay. Note that the past tense of lay is laid, (NOT layed, which only exists as a misspelled word). It’s not a mistake in the table below: both the past tense and past participle of lay is laid.
|Present tense||Past tense||Past Participle||Present participle|
Examples of Lie Conjugated
- Past tense: After I lay down, the phone rang.
- Past participle: The corpulent man had lain on the couch for hours, until his wife scolded him.
- Present participle: I am lying on my side as I write this.
Examples of Lay Conjugated
- Past tense: She laid the sequins in a pattern on the shirt before she sewed them in place.
- Past participle: That is one of the most amazing pictures that I have laid my eyes on.
- Present participle: He was carefully laying each tile in place, when he lost his balance and fell on his work.
If you would like to see more examples, a quick Google search for “lay vs lie” will turn up many helpful websites.
There’s no need to feel guilty if you’ve been using these words incorrectly. Just learn to use them correctly. I know my grammar isn’t perfect, so I appreciate it when people kindly point out my errors.