Wednesday, September 29

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 17 comments
Dear Editor-on-call:

I always have trouble with lay and lie. I've heard that people lie and objects lay but it always sounds odd to me to say,"I'm lying here" instead of "I'm laying here." What is the correct usage?

Yours truly,
Don't want to lie
(aka Sherrie of Write About Now)

Dear No lie,

The mnemonic (memory-helper) you mentioned is correct. Only a chicken, dinosaur or other oviparous creature should ever say "I'm laying here."

Except in the sense of producing eggs, lay is always a transitive verb. That means it is the sort of action that always happens TO something (its object). It behaves more like other "regular" verbs, taking an -ed sounding ending (though spelled differently).

The basic pattern: lay, laid, had/have laid

Here are some examples, with the verb in italics and the object highlighted:

Present: Lay that here!
He lays down the law.
Present participle: We are laying all rejects on this pile.
Past: Jo laid her dry cleaning on the counter.
Past participle: The Duke had laid all choices before him.
Future: Xan will lay your order out in the morning
Gerund: Laying carpet is hard work.

Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive. It's a simple action the subject does. Period. But it's not so simple tense-wise. It's annoyingly irregular with a past tense that trips us up: lay! Argh.

Basic pattern: lie, lay, had/have lain

Present: Lie still!
Lulu lies on the hammock.
Present participle: I am lying in bed, reading.
Past: Hector lay there, dreaming of victory.
Past participle: The tiger had lain in wait.
Future: Dad will lie down when his shift ends.
Gerund: Lying around is relaxing.

I think another reason for your discomfort is that fact that this perfectly good verb has a homonym (sound alike) that means "to tell a falsehood." And who wants that taint to one's honest rest? Well, anyone who isn't a chicken.

We usually overcome that confusion by adding place markers like "lie down" or "lying on the couch" to distinguish reclining from speaking falsehood.

To summarize:
Use lay when moving objects. Its tenses are regular, if strangely spelled.
Use lie when the actor is moving him/herself. Its tenses are irregular.

How do you keep lay and lie straight in your mind? Any tips to add?


  1. Very nice break down. You make it sound so simple!

  2. I never knew that so thanks. But I'm just gonna be a brat and throw 'lye' into the mix. (which is a noun).

  3. I agree with Janet. Well done, Laurel. :)

  4. Bookmarking for composition students right now!! :-)

  5. I think the fact that "lay" is both a verb in present tense and a different verb in past tense causes a lot of confusion.

  6. This is fabulous! I always, always fail to use these correctly, no matter how many times I learn the rules. I'm starring it for quick reference. :)

  7. Janet: Hopefully I kept it entertaining enough that the simplicity will stay clear and memorable.

    Anne: Hooray, you can visit again! I don't know too many who get that noun homonym mixed for these verbs. But yes, the whole homonym issue does make our language tricky.

    Stephanie: glad to be of service

    Lola: You see, I'm a teacher at heart. I just hate public speaking. :-)

    Shannon: kewl. One thing you might want to double check here is the "participle" terminology. Is there a difference between perfect tenses and participles? It seems like maybe the terms are used interchangably?

  8. Yat-Yee: I think you're right that the past tense of lie being lay creates most of the confusion. Darned irregular verbs.

    Tina: maybe I need to do some sentence diagramming here. That will really rock your socks. :-)

    Jaycee: Glad it was helpful.

    Sandy: If you wanted to make a quick chart for yourself on a post-it, here's what I'd suggest:

    To set something down: lay (it), laid (it), had/have laid (it), laying (it)

    To recline: lie, lay, had/have lain, lying

  9. Another huge confusion is that the past-tense of lie is lay which is why so many people get confused. Is this a weird word that might eventually evolve into one?

  10. This was fanastic!!! I love how you portrayed the right and wrong usage, how to help yourself, tips and all.

    I think I need to do something like this on my blog! Thanks for the brilliant idea and tips!

  11. I'm horrible with this one. I'm sure I've misused it lots of times. I'll have to come back to this post when I do word edits.

  12. Can't lie - you have laid this out beautifully. Now to remember it...

  13. Helpful tips! I always get these two mixed up. Thanks for going over this.

    Hope you've had a great weekend! :)

  14. I usually go with my gut - but I'm not sure I'm always right. If I'm not sure I reword the sentence so I don't use the word!