Word Choices: Lay vs. Lie

3 min read

Imagine your friends are over for a movie night, and they’ve brought a tray of brownies to share. You take the platter from them — but do you tell them you’re going to "lie" it down or "lay" it down? And will you all "lie" down to watch the movie, or "lay" down? It's an age-old question: What is the actual difference between "lay" and "lie"? When do you use one over the other?

Why are "lay" and "lie" confusing?

To clarify: We're not talking about the kind of lie you might tell when you call out of work or don’t finish your homework on time. We’re talking only about the setting/reclining meaning of the verb.

"Lay" and "lie" are often confused because both words are about people or objects positioned horizontally on a surface. But they are used to refer to different scenarios.

It can be quite simple — if you’re in the present tense. The past tense is when things really get confusing, since the past tense of "lie" is "lay" (sorry). But don’t worry, we’ll give you a few easy tips to help you along.

When to use "lay" vs. "lie"

"Lay" is a transitive verb. Transitive means that you have an object that is being acted upon. So "lay" means to set down or place something — an object — in a horizontal position. Here’s an example in the present tense: “I lay the book on the nightstand.” In this instance, the book is the object that is having something done to it.

"Lie" is an intransitive verb, meaning the object doesn’t need something else to put it down. Instead, the person or subject is doing the action. "Lie" means to stay at rest in a horizontal position, or to recline. An example of "lie" in present tense would be, “I feel the wind as I lie in my backyard on the grass.” In this example, the person is performing the action rather than having the action done to them.

So, in the present tense, the simplest way to determine which word to use is by looking at what is actually being reclined. If the reclining object is inanimate and/or requires someone to put it down, use "lay." If the object is self-sufficient, such as a person, use "lie." Quick memory tip: Only a person can lie on a bed and tell a lie.

"Lay" and "lie" in other tenses

Here’s a chart to help you understand how the two are used in different tenses.

Let’s tackle the past tense of each, since that’s where there’s the most opportunity to pick the wrong word.

I ____ my clothes out last night before I went to bed.

Which one is it — "lay" or "lie"? Here’s how to tell: Is something happening to an object? Yep! The clothes are being set out. That tells us that we need the verb "lay," past tense "laid."

I laid my clothes out last night before I went to bed.

Now, what about the past tense of "lie"?

I heard a noise coming from the basement as I ____ on the sofa watching a horror movie.

In this example, there is not a specific action being performed upon an object. Rather, the speaker (the subject) is doing the action. This means we need the past tense of "lie," which (confusingly) is "lay."

I heard a noise coming from the basement as I lay on the sofa watching a horror movie.

Still confused? Don't worry. You won't get reprimanded too much if you mix these up in verbal conversation. But for written communication, it helps to practice with examples so you can be confident in your word choice.

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