Lie vs Lay, Revisited

I think I might have confused some of you with my first lie vs lay post, because I see people who used them correctly before start to use them wrong. 😦 I’m going to try to clear things up in this post by using examples from common confusing situations.

To review, here are brief definitions of the verbs to lie and to lay. The verb to lie, when meaning to recline (as opposed to not telling the truth), is an intransitive verb, so it is used without an object. Whatever lies down does so by itself. Meanwhile, the verb to lay means to put or place something down, and requires a direct object because it is a transitive verb. The subject lays the object. For a more in-depth explanation, please see the original post.

Here is the table again, slightly modified for clarity.

Present Tense Simple Past Tense Past Participle Progressive Tenses
lie lie lay lain lying
lay lay laid laid laying

The infinitive
Incorrect: You need to lay on your back to do this exercise.
Remember, the verb lay means to place. In this case, you need to recline to do the exercise, and therefore use the verb lie.
Correct: You need to lie on your back to do that exercise.

The simple past tense
Some of you might have remembered me saying “don’t use lay when you mean to recline” and are avoiding it entirely. However, the simple past tense of the verb lie happens to be the word “lay,” which is probably where the confusion started.

Incorrect: I laid awake for two hours before giving up on my nap.
“Laid” is actually the simple past tense and the past participle of the verb lay. For this example, the correct verb is lie.
Correct: I lay awake for two hours before giving up on my nap.

Incorrect: Her hair laid in a pile on the floor.
If you think the verb lay means to recline, of course the simple past tense would be “laid.” However, the correct verb here is actually lie. “Her hair” is the subject of the verb. It is in a pile on the floor. It’s not placing anything in a pile on the floor. The simple past tense of lie is “lay.”
Correct: Her hair lay in a pile on the floor.

Laying or lying?
I know I kept emphasizing that the past tense of the verb to lie is lay, without specifying it was the simple past tense. This may have led people to think any reclining that happened in the past becomes something with “lay” in it, and I’d see errors like the one below.

Incorrect: She was laying on the grass.
The past progressive of the verb lie is lying.
Correct: She was lying on the grass.

The same goes for the present progressive.

Incorrect: I don’t have a ton of cash laying around.
Your nonexistent cash is not placing other objects around. The present progressive of the verb lie is lying.
Correct: I don’t have a ton of cash lying around.

Lay in bed or lie in bed?
Here are two sentences that use “lay in bed.” One is right, one is not.

Correct: I lay in bed for twenty minutes but didn’t fall asleep.
This is correct because we’re talking about reclining in the past. The simple past tense of the verb lie is lay.

Incorrect: If my head doesn’t stop hurting, I’ll just lay in bed.
You’re talking about reclining here, so this is the simple future tense of the verb lie. It should be “I’ll lie in bed.”

Lay down or lie down?
Incorrect: The ultrasound technician told me to lay down.
In this case, the correct verb is to lie. If you’re commanding someone to recline, use “lie down.”

However “lay down” is not always wrong. It’s right if you’re referring to placing an object down.
Correct: Lay down your burdens.
Here, your burdens are the object of the verb. You are placing them down, figuratively.

Lay flat
I hear this all over the crafting world. 😡

Incorrect: Let your swatch lay flat, and measure out four inches.
The knitted fabric is not actually placing anything down. Therefore, you want to let the swatch lie flat.
Contrast that with “lay your swatch flat,” which does make sense because you’re placing the swatch (the object of the verb) so that it’s flat.

Incorrect: Pull your threads tight so it lays flat.
The threads are not placing anything flat. Your work lies flat.

At this point, you might be thinking, but clothing tags say “lay flat to dry!” This is my interpretation. I don’t know for certain if it’s accurate. I think it means “lay [the garment] flat to dry.” Remember that the verb lay means to place, and must be used with an object. In this case, the object is the garment, and it has been omitted from the sentence. (I’ve seen some tags that say “dry flat.” Again, the object is omitted, but the wording is more concise and avoids perpetuating the “lay flat” confusion.)

*      *      *

I hope you found this post helpful. This is my current grammar pet peeve because I’m hearing it used incorrectly more and more. It’s also a pity that there are people who write with otherwise correct grammar but mix up these two. As always, feel free to ask for clarification if you need any.

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4 thoughts on “Lie vs Lay, Revisited

  1. Sometimes I have to stop myself and really think about which word to use. This post was incredibly helpful, and the explanations for each incorrect/correct sentence was especially beneficial.

    I’ll bookmark this post so that I can reference to it whenever I need it 🙂 Thank you so much for this!

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