Editors Blog

Lay vs. Lie (vs. Laid)

lay lieQ: In the battle of lay vs. lie, when do you use each and can you provide examples? —Annemarie V.

Don’t forget about “lain,” my friend! All these verbs have two things in common: They begin with the letter “L” and confuse the bejeezus out of many people. But here’s a simple breakdown that will hopefully help you decipher when to use each one and when to use their past-tense equivalents (I’ve also included a handy chart at the end to help, but we’ll get to that later).

Lay

Lay and lie are both present-tense verbs, but they don’t mean quite the same thing. Lay means to put or set something down, so if the subject is acting on an object, it’s “lay.” For example, I lay down the book. You, the subject, set down the book, the object.

Lie

Lie, on the other hand, is defined as, “to be, to stay or to assume rest in a horizontal position,” so the subject is the one doing the lying—I lie down to sleep or When I pick up a copy of my favorite magazine, Writer’s Digest, I lie down to take in all its great information—and not acting on an object. In both these cases, you, the subject, are setting yourself down. Are you with me so far?

I Lie Down vs. Now I Lay Me Down (to Sleep)

To clarify things further, I’ll answer this question that you’re probably wondering: How can you be lying down in your examples while the classic nighttime prayer for kids clearly begins “Now I lay me down to sleep”? You must be out of your mind! It’s true, I’m totally out of my mind, but both the examples I used and the kids’ prayer are correct—and here’s why.

In I lie down to sleep, there is no object to the sentence, just subject (I). In Now I lay me down to sleep, there is a subject (I) and an object (me). Even though the subject and object are one and the same, the object is still present in the sentence, so you must use lay.

Laid vs. Lay vs. Lain

In the past tense, “lay” becomes “laid” (Last week I laid down the law and told her it was inappropriate for her to pick her nose) and “lie” becomes “lay” (Yesterday she lay down for a nap that afternoon and picked her nose anyway). Yes, “lay” is also the past tense of “lie.” And the confusion doesn’t end there.

To throw you for another loop, “laid” is also the past participle form of “lay.” So, when helping verbs are involved, “lay” becomes “laid” and “lie” becomes “lain.” Grandma had laid the chicken in the oven earlier this morning. The chicken had lain there all day until it was cooked all the way through and ready for us to eat.

Remember: Lay and laid both mean to set something down, while lie, lay and lain all mean the subject is setting itself down.

And now, I lay this question to rest. (Enjoy this totally awesome chart below to help you keep track of when to use lay, lie, laid, lain and more.)

Lay vs. Lie Chart


Infinitive    Definition         Present    Past    Past Participle    Present Participle


to lay      to put or place     lay(s)      laid     laid                  laying
something down

to lie     to rest or recline    lie(s)       lay      lain                  lying


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19 thoughts on “Lay vs. Lie (vs. Laid)

  1. annaschauer

    When I was an English teacher and every Wednesday featured “the Blunder of the Week,” this was probably the first thing I dealt with.
    P.S.Not to be obsessive, but isn’t the correct grammar “Now I lay myself down to sleep”? ;)

  2. atwhatcost

    It took me three hours of reading tons and tons of articles on this problem to finally get it through. Despite that, I still have to read again when I land on it again when I’m writing. Worse yet, I have a major problem with the whole concept for my novel, because what people consider objects to be placed on a surface (stuffed animals) are the characters in the story. I do understand, when they recline, they lie. When they are placed on a table, they lay. That’s not the problem.

    Have you ever had your favorite stuffed animal lie down on its own? For my story, that’s a trick question. In my story, they are what every child knows they are and what every adult knows they aren’t–sentient beings. They just have to hide that around adults, so I’m back to deciding whether they are placed in a prone position or repose on their own accord. That’s tough enough to decide if these words come natural to you and you understand. Since I struggle with the choices, I’m inclined to keep them from ever going in a horizontal position, but they sleep. ;)

  3. Schwarzkatz

    Hate to say this, but this seems to be more of a problem to American writers than to British ones. I recently saw a published novel by a very good American crime writer who made this mistake several times (but I must admit I once saw it in a British novel as well). Thanks for the clarification, anyway. And thanks for all the excellent tips for NaNoWriMo!

  4. Chancelet

    This is very, very helpful information. I had recently taken a one-day grammar class, and although it was a great class, he confused me more with the lay v. lie because he explained it with too simple a rule. This clarifies the distinction immensely.

    One question…. Does it really matter if you get it right when more than half the world will think it’s wrong because they don’t know these rules? (This is me being facetious.)

  5. JamesSweatt

    Now to confuse even further:
    To lie, as in not telling the truth. Both verbs–“to lie”–don’t take an object, but they are conjugated a tad differently. To fill in your chart:
    INFINITIVE DEFINITION PRESENT PAST PAST PARTICIPLE PRESENT PARTICIPLE
    to lie to not tell the truth lie(s) lied lied lying

    Oh, on another note: Isn’t the idiom, “one and the same?”

  6. thewordman

    And then there is the common expression “get laid” as in “I’m not only taking out the garbage but also vacuuming the apartment before my wife gets home which may put her in the right mood for me to get laid tonight.”

  7. monica67

    This one has stumped me for years — and I’m an editor and proofreader! I’ve just flagged the page in the dictionary, since I know I can’t keep them straight. I’m okay with that too. Editors aren’t perfect (just peruse the book nearest you)!

    But the chart is terrific, Brian! Visual aids rock. I think I may print it out and stick it on my wall…

  8. jincomt

    I swear I get this one screwed up all the time in my writing and to make it more confusing, it seems like no matter which one I use, Word highlights it as incorrect. I appreciate the clear explanation. There are a few words that just snag in my head. I might have to copy and post your chart.

    1. jotokai

      Yeah. I don’t know about Word- because I don’t seem to have it- but OpenOffice and MsWorks seem to highlight anything that’s questionable, because the computer doesn’t know for sure what you mean. (Maybe a yellow underline? -anyone?)

  9. Ishmael

    Thanks Brian. Honestly, I had forgotten all about “lain,” and have been using “laid.” It’s an odd one! I must have lain that little nugget of information in the dark corners of my mind.

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