Laying vs. Lying (Lay vs. Lie)–What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between lay and lie?

You lie down, but you lay something down. Lie does not require a direct object. Lay requires a direct object. The same rule applies to laying and lying (not lieing—beware of spelling). The past tense of lay is laid, but be careful with the past tense of lie—there are two options. We’ll dive into them later.

When to Use Lay

To lay is to set (or otherwise place) something in a resting position. Here are a few examples of lay in a sentence.

I don’t like to lay my purse on the floor.

The dogs always lay their toys next to their water bowls.

Lay Lie (something) (down)

How to Use Lie

A lie is an untruth. However, it’s the verb form of lie that people find difficult to distinguish from lay. The verb lie means to tell a falsehood. Here’s an example of lie in a sentence:

Sometimes children lie to get out of trouble.

If to tell an untruth were the only meaning of lie, using these two words properly would be less of a challenge. However, lie can also mean to recline or to rest in a flat position. Notice this example:

The fat cat likes to lie in the sun.

How to Remember the Difference between Lay and Lie

(pLAce) and (recLIne)

This mnemonic should help you remember that lay, which begins with the letters L-A, has a long A sound like its definition: to place. On the other hand, lie, which starts with the letters L-I, has a long I sound like its definition: to recline.

How Should I Use Lay vs. Lie?

Knowing what the words mean doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to use lay and lie. Again, here are a few rules to help you. In the present tense, you often use a direct object with lay. However, lie can’t take a direct object. Look back at the examples again to see these rules in play.

There’s still one more thing you need to know. When you are talking about reclining, the past tense of lie is lay! Here’s an example.

Yesterday, he lay down to sleep at ten o’clock. Tonight, he won’t lie down until midnight.[/example]

Laying Vs. Lying

Beware of spelling! The present participle of lie is not lieing. The I becomes a Y: lying. Here is a mnemonic from the website Primility to help you tell laying and lying apart:

“If you tell an untruth it is a lie, not a lay; and if you are in the process of telling an untruth you are lying and not laying.”

The delivery boy took pleasure in gingerly laying each newspaper on the stoop.

I can always tell when my friend is lying because she bites her lip.

I spend rainy days lying on my couch.

Don’t leave dirty clothes lying around the house.

The past tense of lie (as in, to tell an untruth) is lied. As you can see, the past tense of lie is lay, but the past tense of lay is laid, which is a recipe for confusion! To remember that laid (as opposed to lain) is the past tense of lay, just memorize this phrase:

Use a D when there is a direct object. Because you need a direct object only with lay, you will know that the past tense is laid.

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Examples

I would like to lie next to him in the dark and watch him breathe and watch him sleep and wonder what he’s dreaming about and not get an inferiority complex if the dreams aren’t about me.

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits.

Did the examples help you figure out the difference between lay and lie? If you have mastered this commonly confused pair, try your hand at loose vs. lose and entitled vs. titled.

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Comments
  • Greg

    Humans can lie, objects can’t. That’s how I remember this one.

    • Robert Matheson

      But objects CAN lie. If I lay my pencil on a table, for example, then the pencil lies on the table.

  • Ellen Cox

    Uggg, this one will always drive me crazy!!!!

  • Lisa M

    Not sure this helped me. Lol

  • Kippy

    Another way my students find helpful:
    As far as needing objects goes, lie and lay work like sit and set. Lie and sit act alike, and they both contain “i”.

    I’m going to go sit down.
    I’m going to go lie down.

    I’ll set the books on the table.
    I’ll lay the baby in the basket.

    The only people who would be confused are those who say “Come in and set a spell,” but I live in Maine, and my students don’t say that.

  • Roy Laming

    What about- lean leaned lent?
    Roy

    • Robert Matheson

      “Lent” is the past tense/past participle of “lend”.
      The past tense/past participle of “lean” is “leant” or “leaned” (both are valid).

  • Randall Hamlet

    In many dialects, “lay” is correct and “lie” is VERY unnatural. I wonder what the actual use patterns show.

  • Phoenix none

    One that became popular in one of my English classes was the determination that we did not get laid; rather, we got lain. And we learned happily ever after.

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