The difference between the verbs lay and lie is one of English’s thornier cases of confusion. Both words involve something or someone in a horizontal position, but where the two words deviate has to do with who or what is horizontal—the subject of the verb (the one doing the action) or the direct object (the person or thing being acted upon).
To lay means “to put or place in a horizontal position,” and is a transitive verb, meaning it requires a direct object (e.g. I lay the quilt on the couch. I lay the book on the table). To lie means “to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position” and “to rest, remain, be situated, etc.” Lie is an intransitive verb, meaning it does not take a direct object (e.g. I lie on the couch). If you’re the one lying comfortably on your back you want the verb lie, but if you can replace the verb with “place” or “put” (e.g. I place the book on the table) then use the verb lay.
Transitivity is a basic distinction between verbs, and the lay/lie distinction is by no means unique. You’ve probably already mastered when to use rise over raise, or sit instead of set. Lie and lay are no different—the words may be similar, but they are not interchangeable.
Unfortunately, the straightforward answers stop there. Once you move into the past tense it gets trickier. The past tense of lay is laid, but the past tense of lie takes the irregular form lay. So although lay and lie are two different verbs, lie in the past tense looks like lay. The past participle forms of lay and lie (formed with the helping verb “have”) are also distinct: lay maintains its past form laid , but lie takes the new ending lain. To complete the paradigm, the present participle form of lay is laying, and the present participle of lie is lying.
Let’s explore these nuances with a few example sentences:
· Lie: The cat hops up on the bed and lies down.
· Lay: You lay your book down and pet her.
· Lie: Last night, you lay awake for hours, unable to go to sleep.
· Lay: Last night, you laid all of the ingredients on the kitchen counter for the upcoming feast.
· Lie: You had just lain down to sleep when a noise jolted you awake.
· Lay: The book, which you had laid on the bedside table, had fallen.
· Lie: You are lying on the grass in the park and soaking up the sun.
· Lay: Your friend is laying a towel on the grass beside you.
So, how to remember? First, take comfort in the fact that few of us do. But it’s a good idea to know the distinction for formal writing (and to impress your friends with your grammar prowess).
Simple expressions like lay it on me are useful tools to remember that lay always takes a direct object (in this case “it”). And when in doubt, if you can replace the verb with “place” or “put” then the verb you want is lay. As for lie, its homophone lie (as in “to fib”) can actually help, because both forms of lie are intransitive. If you can replace the meaning of lie for the meaning of fib and the sentence is still grammatical, you’re using the correct term (e.g. I lie on the couch is grammatical; I lie the cat next to me is not.)
Do you have any tricks to keep these verbs straight?