Lay Or Lie And How Easy It Is For Everyone To Get Them Wrong

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lay vs lie

Why do we get lay vs lie so confused all the time?

These two verbs cause so many problems, even for proficient English speakers.

The cause of the misuse is in the grammar. Isn’t it always?

Well, let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first and then look at some examples.

The main contrast between the verb lie and the verb lay is that one is an intransitive verb and the other is a transitive verb.

Lay is transitive, and lie is intransitive.

The easiest way to remember which verb is which is to think about the root of the word transitive, which is transit. It means to go across or passage from one place to another.

Therefore, a transitive verb moves the action across to an object, while an intransitive verb action is not transferred and only applies to the subject.

An intransitive verb does not have an object.

The baby is teething.

I work for a building company.

They laughed together.

We talked for a while.

A transitive verb requires an object.

Mike used to manage a restaurant.

Did you wash the dishes?

I can move my car.

Can I open the window?

With lay and lie

I lie down in the afternoon. (intransitive)

I lay the book on the table. (transitive)

A chicken lays eggs. (transitive)

We lie together on the beach. (intransitive)


Further reading: What Is The Subjunctive Mood And When Should You Use It?


Lay and lie and their confusing tense forms

Where these two verbs get a little more complex is when we change tense.

lay vs lie table

The reason for most of the confusion is that the past tense of lie is lay, which is the present tense of lay.

Boy, English really has a way of making things tough sometimes.

The past forms of to lay are easy and regular. Lay, laid, laid.

But for to lie, the forms are easy to forget because they are so weirdly irregular. Lie, lay, lain. How often do you use or hear the past participle lain?

Luckily, the present participle of lie and lay are regular. Laying, lying.

In everyday use, it becomes easier if you try to remember that lay requires a direct object.

Lay means to put something down, often gently.

I laid the book on my bed.

She was laid low for a week by the flu.

Could you lay my new dress on my bed, please?

I laid the table with our best crockery.

Lie means to take a horizontal position and doesn’t require a direct object.

I think I’ll lie quietly and see if it helps my headache.

I lay down for an hour this morning.

I had only lain down for a few minutes when the phone rang.

He lay still for a moment.

It is easy really. If there is an object, it is lay. If there is no object, it is lie.


Further reading: The Best Free Online Grammar Check With Punctuation Checker


The world of music is why we learn to get it all so wrong

Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are to blame!

Sorry Bob and Eric, but your songs should be Lie Lady Lie and Lie Down Sally.

Can you spot why some of these popular song titles use lay incorrectly?

Lay Lady Lay (wrong)
Bob Dylan

Lay Down Sally (wrong)
Eric Clapton

Lay Your Hands On Me (correct)
Bon Jovi

Now I Lay Thee Down (correct)
Machine Head

Pick ’em Up and Lay ’em Down (correct)
Toby Keith

Lover Lay Down (wrong)
Dave Matthews Band

I Lay Down and Die (wrong)
Bee Gees

Lay It Down (correct)
Kenny Rogers

Lay Your Money Down (correct)

Lay Back Daddy  (wrong)
Etta James

Lay Me Down Easy (correct)
Three Dog Night

Lay Another Log on the Fire (correct)
B.B. King

Lay Your Love on Me (correct)
Bad Company

Would You Lay With Me  (wrong)
Johnny Cash

Lay Down Beside Me  (wrong)
Kenny Rogers



Does it matter if you use lay and lie incorrectly?

If it is a matter of people understanding, well, maybe not. But if you are a writer, you should take the time to iron out any knots you might have with these two verbs.

Getting them right is much better than being attacked by the grammar police.

I’ll leave you with a little relaxation, but I expect after reading this article, your ears might now react to how Bob and Eric got it all so wrong.

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Derek Haines

Derek Haines is an Australian author, living in Switzerland.

4 thoughts on “Lay Or Lie And How Easy It Is For Everyone To Get Them Wrong

  • Thank you, this was very helpful. I always get lie and lay wrong.

    • LIE versus LAY I learned the correct use of these two verberbs I was taught the phonetics of both in a course many years ago.

  • Another reason it’s easy for people to get confused (besides hearing others use the verbs either incorrectly or interchangeably all their lives) is that often, the direct objects of verbs like “lay” and what we used to call “understood”–that is, unstated. It would not be at all odd to have your mom ask “Did you wash?” before you ran off to school in the morning. She would have meant, “Did you wash your face” or “hands,” or even your whole body, as in “Did you take a bath?” But you’d have understood her question even though it was implicit. Similarly, some intransitive verbs can be used transitively, as in “I like to work puzzles.” An example of this kind of confusion for lie/lay might be the point that in “She will lay down the law,” the actual verb is “lay down”; English has a lot of these compounds. “Down” is a preposition and can’t, in itself, be the direct object of a transitive verb. It’s not a far journey to “I’m going to lay down in the sun for a while.”

    Sorry! I love this stuff!

  • One of the most helpful articles I’ve read in a long time. Thanks!!!


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