Commonly Confused Words: ‘Lay’ and ‘Lie’

The next instalment in our ‘Commonly Confused Words’ series is ‘lay’ and ‘lie’. Am I going to lay down for a nap? Or lie down for a nap?

This series aims to explain the difference between a few of the most misused or misunderstood words in academic writing. We’ll also give some examples to help you remember the rules that govern the use of ‘lay’ and ‘lie’.

Before we plunge straight into our definitions, we need to understand something about transitive and intransitive verbs.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

An intransitive verb is a verb that doesn’t ‘carry [an] action to an object’. Mark Treddinick (2008, p. 96) provides these examples of intransitive verbs:

This kind of thing happened.

That was when she first appeared.

I would like to add an example of my own:

I am going to lie down for a rest.

That’s right! ‘Lie’ is used intransitively. That means ‘lie’ doesn’t carry the action to a direct object. This becomes clearer when we compare the usage of ‘lie’ and ‘lay’.

‘Lay’ is transitive. That means that ‘lay’ happens to something or someone—it must have a direct object. For example:

Lay it on me. (‘It’ is the something that ‘lay’ happens to.)

Chickens lay eggs. (‘Eggs’ are the something that ‘lay’ happens to.)

Could you lay the turkey on the table? (‘The turkey’ is the something that ‘lay’ happens to.)

A good way to remember the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ is suggested by Grammar Girl: you lay something down, people lie down by themselves.

The Complication of Tense

So far we’ve been discussing ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ in present tense: ‘She lay her cup in the sink to wash up later’ and ‘They lie on the sofa and watch TV of an evening’.

Rather unhelpfully, the past tense of ‘lie’ (as used in the example above) is ‘lay’. Yes, we agree—it’s terribly confusing! (We will deal with ‘lie’ and ‘lied’ at the end of the article.) The previous example, in past tense, becomes, ‘They lay (down) on the sofa and watched TV’.

The past tense of ‘lay’ is ‘laid’. Therefore, the earlier example becomes, ‘She laid her cup in the sink to wash up later’.

Here are some more examples:

Last week, I laid my resignation letter on your desk. (This is past tense of ‘lay’—‘lay’ happens to the resume.)

He gently laid his foot before the doctor. (Again, this is past tense of ‘lay’—‘lay’ happens to the foot.)

After I washed him, my dog lay in a big puddle. (This is past tense of ‘lie’—‘lie’ doesn’t happen to a direct object.)

She lay in the sun all day. (Again, this is past tense of ‘lie’. It’s worth noting that the ‘in the sun’ is a modifier that tells us more about the action, but ‘lie’ does not happen to the sun—or puddle in the previous example.)

Past Participles

Past participle verbs appear with or after ‘to have’ or ‘to be’ verbs, and its verb form indicates that the action has finished.

The hymn was sung slowly.

had forgotten the words to it.

had done poorly.

The past participle of ‘lie’ is ‘lain’. Remember ‘lie’ doesn’t happen to a direct object, so here’s an example:

‘I had lain aside my pride and begged her to accept my proposal’.

The past participle of ‘lay’ is ‘laid’. ‘Lay’ happens to something, as shown in this example:

‘Timothy had laid Sandra’s clothes on the end of her bed and hoped she would put them away’.

To Tell an Untruth

Of course, there is another use for the word ‘lie’. To ‘lie’ is also to make a ‘false statement with intent to deceive’. Its past tense and past participle is ‘lied’. Here is an example of its usage:

I didn’t want to lie on my resume. Joan lied and she was never caught. If Tony had lied, he might have got the job.

We hope this has brought some clarity to these Commonly Confused Words. We look forward to presenting you with more helpful explanations soon!

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