lay v. lie

Lay and lie are often incorrectly used because their meanings are so similar that people have a hard time remembering which means what. To make matters even more confusing, the past tense of lie is lay (but the past tense of lay is not lie or lied). There has been so much confusion regarding this pair of words that the dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.) has devoted an entire paragraph to the usage of lay and lie. (Note that the word lie in this case means “to recline” rather than “to tell a mistruth.”) The verb lay is used when there is a grammatical object upon which it acts, while lie is the action of the subject.

The various meanings of lay (laid, laying) fill five inches of column space in the dictionary. The most commonly used meanings, those we are addressing here, are “to put or set down,” and “to place for rest or sleep.”

Lie (lay, lain, lying) means “to recline” or “to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position.”


  • When you get tired, lay down that shovel and lie down in the hammock for a break. (The shovel is the object of your action [you lay down the object, in this case, the shovel].  You are the subject, and you take the action verb lie.)


  • Lay those books on the desk in the living room. (The books are an object. “You” are the implied subject in this imperative sentence.)
  • She laid the baby in the bassinet. (The baby is the object.)
  • I was laying carpet in the hall when I realized I disliked the color I’d chosen. (The carpet is the object.)
  • Now I lay me down to sleep. (In this children’s prayer, the subject I is placing his body [me–the object] down to sleep, so lay is appropriate.)


  • We expect the children to lie quietly during nap time, even if they don’t sleep. (Why lie instead of lay here? Because “We” are not acting upon the children, they are a second subject rather than an object of our action.)
  • The books lie on the desk in the living room. (The books are the subject in this sentence. They are taking the action of lying on the desk.)
  • The seeing-eye dog lay at the foot of her owner’s bed while he was sleeping. (Lay is the past tense of lie. Confusing, right? The dog is the subject of this past-tense sentence.)
  • Susie has lain in the hammock every afternoon this summer. (Susie is the subject, there is no object on which she is acting.)
  • I was lying in the grass when the phone rang. (I is the subject, there is no object.)
Published in: on May 24, 2009 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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