Lie vs. Lay: The Controversy Unveiled

Lie and Lay are two verbs that give us a ton of trouble in both spoken and written English and have since the 14th century.  We often avoid learning the correct ways to use both of them because “it’s too complicated” or “that sounds funny to me.”  It is true that non-standard usage has become more popular than standard in regard to these two odd verbs, but that is no reason to give up on them—their survival depends on English speakers like you.

To understand Lie and Lay, it is important first to back up and understand the different kinds of verbs they are.

Lay is a transitive verb which means it must take a direct object (the part of the sentence that can almost always be replaced with “it” to make sense and receives the action implied by the verb).

Think of Transitive Verbs as verbs that have “transit,” or traveling, involved.  They have to help the subject affect the object by traveling to it.  Without the direct object, the sentence might not necessarily make sense.  Other transitive verbs are words that portray action like “hit” or “ate.”  Ex: He hit the wall with his fist.  He ate a huge sandwich.

Sometimes it helps to think of lay as set: They lay the body in the tomb. They delicately laid napkins next to every plate.

Lie is an intransitive verb which means the sentence is complete with just subject and verb.

Added information in sentences with Intransitive verbs usually are just phrases functioning as adverbs that tell us when or where.

Ex: [When I asked him to get up], he just lay [there.]  [When I get home], I like to lie [on the couch.]

He lay motionless at her feet.  Think of Lie as sit instead of set.

So now that we have some understanding of when to use the two of these, let’s look at the different forms:

Lie Lay
Present Tense  Lie(s) Present Tense  Lay(s)
Past Tense  Lay Past Tense  Laid
Past Participle  Lain Past Participle  Laid
Present Participle  Lying Present Participle  Laying


I know what you’re thinking: “why the hell is the past tense of lie, lay?”  Well, if you’re looking for someone to blame, you’ll have to reach pretty far back into history since both words come from Old English (lecgan and licgan) and even then only had subtle differences.  And, well, as all Beowulf readers know, Old English is tough stuff.

Here’s the good news:  Knowing the difference of these two can put you ahead of your peers and can actually give you a decent advantage in the job market.  Sure, it won’t be the only thing that helps you, but if you tend to mess these up in emails asking for job interviews, you may have just ensured NOT getting that particular job.  Think of it this way: if you’re going to claim that you’re “detail oriented” on your resume, shouldn’t you make sure you’ve paid attention to little important details such as this difference? (The asnwer’s YES by the way).

Let’s do some practice:

 When I yelled at my dog to get out of my chair, he looked up for a moment and then put his head back down, continuing to (lie / lay) there in peace.

 When I was younger, I used to work every summer (laying / lying) brick for a local construction company.

 I don’t know why Carl (lay/ laid) his socks on the kitchen table.

As I walked through the matted sections of brush, I could see where the coyotes (had lain/ had laid) for the night.

If you’re tired, you should (lay / lie) down

Find the direct object in the following sentence: With all his strength, he threw the football across the field.

Find the direct object in the following sentence: Tyler laid sod for two summers and then decided he was more of an indoor person.

Lie is an _______________ verb and lay is a ____________ verb.

The city (lay/lie) helpless at the feet of the approaching conqueror.

Lie and Lay originate in what ancient germanic language?

On a final note:  Remember that even though it may seem easier to just use lay in all places instead of knowing when to use lie and lay separately, you will put yourself at risk doing so.  The cornerstone of every business is communication, and that means the ability to connect to many different people from many different backgrounds.  Some people may think nothing of your mistake if you use these words incorrectly, but others will immediately notice, in which case you run the risk of becoming stereotyped or distrusted.  It’s only six words; know the difference and practice it in order to keep your language alive.

One Response to “Lie vs. Lay: The Controversy Unveiled”

  1. Shannon Says:

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