Lay or Lie: How to Tell the Difference

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We’ve all been there: you’re on a roll writing an essay, but all of a sudden, you blank out. Is it lay or lie? Or haven’t you heard of lain before? What on Earth is the difference between all of these? And when do you use what?

This can seem confusing at first, but this guide will tell you everything you need to know!

What Is The Difference Between “Lay” and “Lie”?

Let’s start in the present tense. The two verbs we are discussing are “lay” and “lie.”

  • “Lay” is defined as “put down, especially gently or carefully.” In this case, you (or whoever the subject of the sentence is) is putting something down. 
    • For example, “I lay down my notebook on the desk.”
  • “Lie” has many definitions! You are probably familiar with its definition of a non-truth or telling a non-truth. However, in this scenario, “lie” means to “recline or rest in a horizontal or resting position.” The verb “lie” refers to the subject herself reclining.
    • For example, “I love to lie down on my couch.”

The definitions of these two verbs may seem similar, but the important difference to remember is that “lay” refers to laying an object down, whereas “lie” does not refer to a direct object, just the subject of the sentence himself reclining.

A helpful trick here is to think of the similarities between the words “lie” and “recline.”

This may not seem confusing yet, but as we explore the different tenses of these words, you might understand the common mistakes people make!

Past Tense

The past tense of verbs refers to actions done in the past. In the most simple verbs, all you do is add an “-ed” to the end. “Walk” becomes “walked.” 

However, as usual in the English language, there are a ton of irregularities: including “lay” and “lie.”

  • “Lay” in the past tense is “laid.” Remember, “lay” means to put an object down.
      • For example, “In class yesterday, I laid my notebook on the desk.”
  • “Lie” in the past tense is “lay.” And this is where the confusion really starts! As you remember, “lay” means to rest or recline.
    • For example, “After school last week, I lay down on the couch.”
    • This IS NOT the same verb as present-tense “lay”! However, you can see how it’s easy to get mixed up.

When trying to figure out which past-tense verb to use, here’s a helpful trick: use a d when there is a direct object. “Lay” requires a direct object in the sentence, and the past-tense version requires a d – “laid.”

Another important note: you may be tempted to write “laid” as “layed.” The latter is an archaic version of the word that is not in use anymore; stick with “laid.”

Present Participle

In general, the present participle tenses in English refers to a continuous action. In most verbs, it’s recognizable by the addition of “-ing” to the word. The sentence “I walk to work” becomes “I am walking to work” to indicate a continuous motion!

When it comes to “lay” versus “lie,” there are some common mistakes in the present participle tense as well. Let’s go over them!

  • “Lay” in the present participle is “laying.” Remember, “lay” requires a direct object, so you will never be laying. Instead, you would be laying an object down.
      • For example, “I am laying my books down on the table, one by one.”
  • “Lie” in the present participle is “lying.” In this case, the subject of the sentence is the one reclining.
    • For example, “I am lying down to rest after a hard day at work.”

Once again, your best bet is to determine if there is a direct object in the sentence. If there is, use the form of “lay” – which, in this tense, is “laying.”

Past Participle

In English, the past participle is a form of a verb that refers to a continuous action that happened in the past. For example, “I had walked for hours yesterday.”

The past participle tenses of “lay” and “lie” are pretty tricky at first, but you’ll be able to get the hang of them in no time with a little practice.

  • “Lay” as a past participle is “laid.” Yes, the same as the past tense! 
      • For example, “Jeff had laid his blankets down before getting ready for bed.”
  • “Lie” as a past participle is “lain.” As always, there is no direct object when using this verb!
    • For example, “I had lain for hours after my marathon.” 

You can use the same trick here as you did for past tense: if there is a direct object in the sentence, you need a d in your verb: use “laid.”

Common Mistakes

The most common mistake is, for both the past tense and past participle forms, to use “lied.” 

  • Lied is a past tense verb form, but it only refers to the action of telling an untruth in the past. 
    • For example, “When the teacher asked who drew on the walls, the culprits lied when they told her they didn’t.”

Remember: “lied” is always about telling a lie, never laying something down or lying yourself down!

Conclusion: “Lay” or “Lie”

The most important thing to remember is that “lay – laid – laying – laid” always requires a direct object. The subject of the sentence is laying an object down somewhere.

“Lie – lay – lying – lain” never requires a direct object – the subject of the sentence is the one doing the lying!

These two little verbs can definitely seem more trouble than they are worth at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be a pro in no time!

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