Lay vs. Lie

3 min read

So your friends are over for the night, and they’ve brought food to share. You take their plate of food for them — do you tell them you’re going to lie it down or lay it down? And what about your sleeping bags? Will you guys lie down for the movie, or lay down? The 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?

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

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’s actually quite simple. At least 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 is that you have an object that is being acted upon. Lay means to set or place something — an object — down 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 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.

Therefore, 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 requires someone to put it down, then use lay. If the object is self-sufficient, such as a person, use lie.

Lay and lie in other tenses

Here’s a chart to help you with understanding 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 placed out. That tells us that we need the verb lay, whose past tense is laid.

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

Now what about the past tense of lie? Remember, the confusing past tense of lie is lay.

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

There is not a specific action that is being performed upon an object. Rather, the speaker is doing the action to themselves. 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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