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).

The difference between Lay vs. Lie vs. Laid (Plus a handy chart). [Click here to Tweet and share this grammar tip with others!]


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.

[Do you underline book titles? Underline them? Put book titles in quotes? Find out here.]


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?

Debunking 10 Grammar (and Novel Writing) Myths

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.

[How Long Should Novel Chapters Be? Click here to find out.]

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.)

Want other Grammar Rules? Check out:
Sneaked vs. Snuck
Who vs. Whom
Which vs. That
Since vs. Because
Ensure vs. Insure
Home in vs. Hone in
Leaped vs. Leapt

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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

  1. Avatarembram

    You made one mistake. You wrote, “Lay and laid both mean to set something down, while lie, lay and lain all mean the subject is setting itself down.” The last part is wrong. “Lie” does not mean the subject is setting itself down. That would be laying itself down. Lie/lay/lain mean the subject is not doing anything at all except BEING in a prone or supine (or sideways) position on a surface (a bed, for instance). Any actions must be added (e.g., “I was lying in bed reading.”)

    Here’s the best rule for remembering the difference:

    Lay/laid/laid is a verb of action.
    Lie/lay/lain is a verb of position.

    Lay/laid/laid describes the action of a subject putting an object somewhere.

    Lie/lay/lain describes the subject resting on a surface. No action is involved. “I will lie down” implies but does not mean “I will lay myself down.” It means I will be resting on a surface.

  2. Avatarcouturepopcafe

    These two words are so tedious and I’m a stickler for correct word usage. Language is fluid and changes with time according to common usage, just as it always has. 200 years ago it was incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. IMO, whatever is used, lay, lain, laid, lie, the reader will get the meaning. No book every got an award because of the author’s correct use of grammar. I’m editing a book right now narrated by a hyperactive 13 yr old. There’s no way to make it ‘correct’, but the book is brilliantly written in this style. Language is used to communicate. If the message is understood, the language is correct.

  3. AvatarLisa

    Okay, so I didn’t see this in the comments, or may have missed it. Which is correct in a sentence such as: “The adventurous duo were ill prepared for the rotting waste that (lay, lied, laid) ahead.” ? Gets me every time. Thanks!

    1. AvatarTarrasq

      This problem has more to do with tense matching than the correct use of lie/lay. You generally want to match your verb tense in a story (or any other work) especially when it comes to narration. You’re choosing recounting a tale with past tense or running commentary, think sports, with present tense. Or there is prophecy with future. The exception being when a certain time frame has been mentioned you use that tense.

      In your example since you used past tense “were” and the rotting waste isn’t acting on something (no object there) you’d use the past tense of lie, “lay ahead”. If you used “are” instead it would be “lies ahead”.

      However if you’d used the word “now” after “rotting waste” you’ve changed the time frame mid sentence so you’d use present tense and go with “lies ahead”. If you used “are” instead and said “previously” (come up with your own narrative there) before the verb it would change to past tense so “lay ahead”.

  4. AvatarMamaLamb

    I think I understand, but still need some clarification on when you are speaking of a third party laying or lying. Would it be correct to say: she lies on the floor; yesterday she lay on the floor; she had lain on the floor; she was lying on the floor when I arrived?

  5. AvatarAnnewithanE

    Really, this is so much more complicated than it needs to be. Lie, lay, lain refers to humans. Think about the fact that humans lie (that is, deceive each other), and you’ll remember this. I am going to lie down; I want to lie in the sun; etc. If you can remember the present tense, you can work with the other two tenses.

    Lay, laid, lain refers to un-human objects. I lay the book on the table; I laid it there yesterday; I had lain it there before, but my sister took it.

    Just remember whether you’re a person or not. Then you’ll be fine.


      Sorry, seems like you are contradicting the original article here.
      It should be
      “Lay, laid, laid refers to un-human objects. I lay the book on the table; I laid it there yesterday; I had laid it there before, but my sister took it.”

    2. AvatarLibellula

      You are confused. It’s about whether there is a direct object or not–whether the verb is being used transitively or intransitively. You can lay your baby down to sleep, or even lay your head down on a pillow, just the same as you can lay a book down on the table. If there is no explicitly stated direct object, then it’s lie. I lie down (present), I lay down (past), I had/have lain down (present/past perfect).

  6. Avatartommywrites

    I’m very glad to see this, because so many people (including news anchors and Ph.Ds) are blowing it these days. Actually, there are three verbs to deal with.
    to lie on a bed: I lie there now; I lay there yesterday; I have lain there often; I was lying there
    to lie by not telling the truth: I lie now; I lied yesterday; I have lied often; I was lying yesterday
    to lay something down: Now I lay the gun down; yesterday I laid the gun down; I have laid it down often; I was laying it down
    What brought me to your website is that Outlook corrected me when I wrote that I was lying (not telling the truth) and said I should be saying that I was laying, not even giving me “lying” as a choice.

    1. AvatarMarcia Krueger

      This won’t help with every form in the lie/lay challenge, but a good mnemonic is: I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF. “Lie, sit, and rise, (which have an I in them) can do it by themselves. That is, they do not need an object to follow. In contrast, “Lay, set, and raise” (yes, I know raise has an I, but only after the A) must have help. That is, an object, such as in Lay the BOOK down, Set the TABLE, Raise the WINDOW.

  7. Avatarannaschauer

    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”? 😉

    1. AvatarDianePM

      As a retired high school English teacher and university professor, I also found the use of lie/lay and reflexive pronouns as problematic for everyone at all levels. Good question on using “myself” following verb “lay”. Since the action verb “lay” requires a direct object, the pronoun “me” is used because it is the objective case. “Myself” is the reflexive case. This is what makes the study of grammatical usage fun; the solution to one problem leads to another.

      1. Avataranalbumcover

        I think annaschauer is correct on this one. “Myself” is indeed a reflexive pronoun, and a reflexive pronoun is always the object of a sentence. When it is not used as an appositive, it is used when the doer of the action and the receiver of the action are the same person. E.g., I see myself in the mirror, or, I hit myself. It is not correct to say “I hit me”. It is also incorrect to say “I lay me” since you are laying yourself. If it were physically possible to do (maybe if I am a paraplegic lowering myself into bed with ropes pulleys), it would be correct to say, “now I lay myself”, because I’m doing it to myself.
        The only way “now I lay me” would be grammatically correct is if the poet is referring to “I” to poetically mean the poet’s spirit, God (as in I AM), or the entity that exists separately from the poet’s physical body is acting to put the poet to sleep. I.e. now my spirit lays me down to sleep. It is likely a simple matter of the poet preferring the way it sounds in the poem and taking artistic liberty with grammar.

    2. AvatarI.K.C

      *I* is the Subject, while *myself* is the object. In the case of a subject acting on an object, I believe that *lay* should be used. “Now I lay myself down to sleep” is correct!

  8. Avataratwhatcost

    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. 😉

  9. AvatarSchwarzkatz

    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!

  10. AvatarChancelet

    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.)

  11. AvatarJamesSweatt

    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:
    to lie to not tell the truth lie(s) lied lied lying

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

    1. Avatarchrisgg

      I think “Lay down, Sally, rest you in my arms” is poetically acceptable because it implies “lay yourself down, Sally”. The same as Bob Dylan’s “Lay, lady lay…lay across my big brass bed” implies “lay yourself across…”. Songs and poems often leave words out of a sentence that are implied, as Shakespeare was very fond of doing. When referring to humans, the term “lay” often refers to lying or reclining on a bed or sofa and has particular meanings for humans in any song about love and relationships. “Lie down, Sally” would sound more like an instruction to a dog to lie on the floor.

  12. Avatarthewordman

    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.”

  13. Avatarmonica67

    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…

  14. Avatarjincomt

    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. Avatarjotokai

      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?)

  15. AvatarIshmael

    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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