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Difference Between: Lay vs. Lie

Lay and Lie are both verbs (actions). They have similar meanings, but lay means ‘put something on a surface carefully’ – e.g. Chloe lays her clothes on the bed. Lie means ‘move into a horizontal position (independently)’ – e.g. Sarah lies on the sofa after work. Simple rule: Lay (put something down flat) vs. Lie (get into a horizontal position).

Warning! We are not talking about the verb lie that means ‘to tell an untruth’. Here, we are only interested in lie – movement into a horizontal position.

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Lay or lie?

The main thing to think about when using lay or lie is that lay needs a direct object (it is an action that affects a thing) – e.g. The waiter laid the cutlery on the table. The direct object is the cutlery, which is laid on the table. In contrast, lie does not need a direct object – you don’t need anything extra to lie on a bed (you do it independently yourself) – e.g. Dave was looking forward to lying on the beach.

Another way to think about lay and lie is that if you use lay, there is almost always a thing that follows after it plus a preposition (down, on, in, aside, next to) – e.g. Denise forgot to lay her glasses on the bedside table. Lie, on the other hand, is always followed by a preposition – e.g. When John feels ill, he lies down. 

If direct objects and prepositions make your head hurt, try remembering these two patterns for lay and lie:

  • Lay something (somewhere)* – e.g. The cleaner always lays the rug on the floor.
  • Lie somewhere – e.g. The dog lies on the mat every morning. 

*With lay, there is not always a somewhere that follows the something – e.g. The gallery owner laid the drawings out for the client. But most of the time there is a specific location.

Lay and lie can be more confusing when we look at them in different tenses: 

TimeLayLie
PresentThe correct way is to lay the fork to the left of the plate…The cat likes to lie next to the window.

 

PastKerry laid the keys on the sideboard.John lay in bed all day.
Past ParticipleThe shop assistant has laid the sale items near the entrance.Has Peter lain in the sun too long?
Present ParticipleAre you laying out the dinner plates?Teresa is lying on the lawn.

Most of the confusion comes from the present form of lay (lay) being the same as the past form of lie (which is also lay!).

Below are some correct and incorrect ways to use lay and lie in the present and the past:

Lie (present):

  • The hamster always lies next to its wheel. (correct)
  • The hamster always lays next to its wheel. (incorrect) 

Another common mistake that people make is to use the past tense of lay (laid) instead of the past tense of lie (lay) – some people even make lay into a regular verb by saying layed (incorrect form). 

Lie (past):

  • Ben lay down on the floor exhausted. (correct)
  • Ben laid down on the floor exhausted. (incorrect)
  • Ben layed down on the floor exhausted. (incorrect)

There are similar errors with the present participle. Some people mistakenly use laying instead of lying.

Lie (present participle):

  • There’s nothing better than lying in a hammock on holiday. (correct)
  • There’s nothing better than laying in a hammock on holiday. (incorrect)

Again, even when we consider different tenses, the easiest rule to use when thinking about lay vs. lie is: we lay something (somewhere), but we lie down somewhere (ourselves).

Some native speakers even use the past form of lie (‘to tell an untruth’) when they should use lay (the past of lie, as in ‘move into a horizontal position’).
  • The dog lay in the bed again. (correct)
  • The dog lied in the bed again (incorrect)

What does lay mean?

Lay (transitive verb) means: ‘To put something on a surface carefully’.

Synonyms: put down, place, set.

Set expressions: lay something bare (to expose something completely), be laid up (to be inactive due to illness or injury), lay something to rest (to succeed in resolving an issue, emotional state or argument).

Additional meanings:

  • To risk something – e.g. The gambler laid all his money on a game of poker.
  • To produce eggs – e.g. The chicken is laying eggs in the barn.
  • To accuse someone of something – e.g. The police laid five criminal charges on the suspect.
  • To prepare a table for eating – e.g. Jason hasn’t laid the table all week.

Examples with lay in a sentence: 

  • Our chickens lay lots of eggs so we never buy them from the supermarket.
  • I told John to lay the parcel down on the chair.
  • I lay all my books out on the floor when deciding which ones to keep.
  • My parents cook dinner and I lay the table most evenings.
  • When building a house, we first need to lay the foundations. 

What does lie mean?

Lie (intransitive verb) means: ‘to move into a horizontal position’.

Synonyms: recline, rest, lounge.

Set expressions: Have a lie in (sleep later than usual), let sleeping dogs lie (not interfere in a situation), take something lying down (accept something negative without reaction).

Additional meanings:

  • To tell an untruth – e.g. That politician lied to the public.
  • To rank a participant in a competition – e.g. Great Britain is currently lying in third place.
  • To locate where a problem exists – e.g. Responsibility for the delay lies with the supplier.
  • To express where a person’s remains are – e.g. Karl Marx’s body lies in Highgate Cemetery. 

Examples with lie in a sentence:

  • If you’re feeling sick, you should lie down for a while.
  • My dog loves to lie on my bed, but he’s not allowed!
  • You should study more, not just lie around all day doing nothing!
  • I like having a lie in every Sunday.
  • If you lie on the ground, you’ll get cold.

Quiz: Lay or lie?

Try these exercises to test your understanding of the differences between lay and lie. You will have to think about tenses a lot so keep checking the table above to see which form you need to use!

  1. The therapist told the patient to _______ on the sofa.
    a. lie
    b. lay
  2. The Queen instructed the maid to _______ her robes out for the coronation.
    a. lie
    b. lay
  3. The farmer ________ some hay down for the horses last week.
    a. laid
    b. lay
  4. Tim often _________ in his garden hammock last summer.
    a. laid
    b. lay
  5. The teacher is _________ the art materials on the desks for the next class.
    a. laying
    b. lying
  6. Has Susan been_________ in bed all afternoon?
    a. laying
    b. lying
  7. The traveller hadn’t _______ in a proper bed for months.
    a. laid
    b. lain
  8. Joanne had just ________ the baby in the cot when the phone rang.
    a. laid
    b. lain
  9. The ducks ________ on the riverbank to go to sleep last night.
    a. lay
    b. laid
  10. The ducks_________ eggs in their nests every morning.
    a. lay
    b. lie

Answers:

  1. a)
  2. b)
  3. a)
  4. b)
  5. a)
  6. b)
  7. b)
  8. a)
  9. a)
  10. a)
Click here to download this post via our mobile website!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Sam S.
— ESL Tutor.
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