Confused About “Lay” and “Lie”?

The difference between “lay” and “lie” has baffled native English speakers for hundreds of years. If you speak English as a second (or third) language, you might be wondering how you will ever be able to learn how to correctly use those two verbs. After all, even native English speakers can’t seem to keep them straight!

First, we are going to look at these words more closely. This might make things seem even more confusing in the beginning, but keep reading. Later on, we will learn a little trick that should help you remember how to tell the difference between “lay” and “lie” and when to use each one.

Different meanings

Most of the words that confuse non-native English speakers are prepositions or articles. However, “to lay” and “to lie” are both verbs. It can be confusing to know which one to use because they take on different forms depending on when the action is taking place (e.g., past, present, etc.), and whether the verb is connected to a subjective noun (a person or thing doing the action) or an objective noun (a person or thing affected by an action). We will get to that very soon. First, we need to understand the meaning of each verb.

To lay means to set something down, or put something in its place. It can also mean to set down another person, such as a baby in a crib. This is one reason why “lay” and “lie” are so confusing! Just keep in mind that with any form of the verb “to lay”, an action is being performed on something or someone.

To lie means to rest or recline. (There is another “to lie” that means to say something that isn’t true, but we don’t need to concern ourselves with that right now.) With “to lie”, someone is performing the action. There isn’t an object or another person being acted upon.

If you are starting to feel confused, these example sentences should help clarify things for you:

I am going to lay these pillows on the couch. (Note the object—”pillows”.)

Grandpa needs to lie down on the couch for a while. (In this sentence, there is no object.)

Different forms

Now that we are more familiar with the meanings of “to lay” and “to lie”, let’s look at the different forms of each verb, along with an example sentence for each one.

Verb tenseTo layTo lie
Simple presentlay or lays
Mike lays the cups on the counter.
lie or lies
The cat lies on the couch.
Simple pastlaid
Yesterday, Mike laid the cups on the counter.
Last night, the cat lay on the couch with us while we watched TV.
Present participlelaying
Mike is laying the cups on the counter.
The cat is lying on the couch.
Past participlehas or have laid
Mike has laid the cups on the counter.
has or have lain
The cat has lain in the bed, but she prefers the couch.

Once you have noticed that “lay” is the simple past tense form of “lie”, you might feel ready to throw this whole chart out the window. It would be much easier if “lied” was the correct form, the way it is with the version of “to lie” which means to tell an untruth. Unfortunately, the English language can be maddening sometimes. At least now you have a chart to refer to when you get mixed up!

A helpful hint

Aside from looking for an object in a sentence, another way to tell the difference between “lay” and “lie” is to look closely at the letters that form both words. Also, listen to their sounds.

“Lay” has a long “a” sound, the same as in the word “place”. This can help you remember that “lay” means to put someone or something in its place.

Meanwhile, “lie” has a long “i” sound, the same as “recline”. This can help you remember that “lie” is a synonym for “recline”.

If you are using any form of “lay” or “lie”, it is a good idea to have a human editor take a look at your text to make sure you are using the correct word. Just click the blue box below, and one of our TextRanch editors can check your writing.

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