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Lay or Lie?

The Quick Answer
To lay means to place in a horizontal position.

Example:
  • Every morning, she lays his dressing gown on the bed.
To lie means to be in a horizontal position. (Beware! The past tense is lay.)

Example:
  • His dressing down lay on the bed.
To lie also means to speak an untruth.

Example:
  • I lie for you all the time.

Lay and Lie

There is often confusion over the verbs to lay and to lie. The confusion arises because to lay [to place something in a horizontal position] and to lie [to be in a horizontal position] have similar meanings. The confusion is not helped by the past tense of to lie (when it means to be in a horizontal position) being lay.

Here are the most common terms with to lie and to lay:
  • To lay something flat (e.g., a table cloth)
  • To lie flat (i.e., to be in a lying position)
  • (Remember, "He lay flat" is correct for the past tense.)
  • To lie low (to keep a low profile)
  • ("He lay low" is correct for the past tense.)
  • To lie down (to get into a lying position)
  • ("He lay down" is correct for the past tense.)
  • To lie ahead (to be in the future or farther down the road)
  • ("It lay ahead" is correct for the past tense.)

To Lay (Past Tense: Laid)

To lay means to place something in a position, especially a horizontal position. For example:
  • The maids lay the table for dinner at 7 o'clock.
  • The policeman urged the boys to lay down their weapons.
  • Put your hands up, and lie down your weapons.
  • (This should be lay down.)
  • We are expecting our white spotted bamboo shark to lay eggs in April.
The past tense of lay is laid. For example:
  • Annabelle laid the puppy in the basket.
  • They laid the body on the bank and notified the coroner.
The past participle is also laid. For example:
  • According to the pamphlet, we should have laid old sheets on the floor to prevent paint splashes landing on the decking.
  • A teenager killed by a shark in northern New South Wales has been laid to rest.

To Lie (Past Tense: Lied)

The verb to lie (with the past tense lied) means to say something untrue in order to deceive.

Examples:
  • Did you lie about your age to join the Army?
  • Your eyes betray you when you lie.
  • My reflexologist says I am lying about my health. He says that my feet, however, do not lie.
  • (The present participle of to lie is lying)
Remember, the past tense of to lie in this meaning is lied. For example:
  • Malcolm lied his way past the doormen.
  • Billy lied so often about his boxing achievements, he forgot the truth.
The past participle of to lie is also lied:
  • Malcolm had lied his way past the doormen.

To Lie (Past Tense: Lay)

The verb to lie (with the past tense lay) means to be in, or move into, a horizontal position.

Examples:
  • I think I'll lie down for 20 minutes after lunch.
  • Lie on your back and look at the stars.
  • Clutching his betting slip, Mr Reynolds screamed, "Get up! Don't just lie there." However, Paul was just lying on his back with one eye on the referee while the count went ahead.
  • (The present participle of to to lie is lying.)
  • My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.
  • (As in this example, to lie can simply mean to be.)
Remember, the past tense of to lie in this meaning is lay. For example:
  • An alibi? I just lay on the sofa all night, watching The Simpsons.
  • The snow lay on the field all week.
The past participle of to lie in this meaning is lain. For example:
  • Mark had lain at the foot of the knoll for hours.
  • How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home?
Quick Test
 
 
Note

Table Showing the Forms

The table below shows the various forms of to lay and both meanings of to lie:

PresentPastParticiples
To lay (to place in a horizontal position)
I lay...
He lays...
He laid... is laying (present)
was laid (past)
To lie (to tell an untruth)
I lie.
He lies.
He lied... is lying (present)
has lied (past)
To lie (to be in a horizontal position)
I lie.
He lies.
He lay... is lying (present)
has lain (past)
Beware

Main Culprit

The most common mistake is to use lie instead of lay. If you remember that lie cannot take a direct object, then you will eliminate this error.
  • To lay your head on the pillow.
  • To lie your head on the pillow.
  • (In these examples, your head is the direct object. Remember, lie cannot have a direct object.)
  • My chicken lays eggs.
  • My chicken lies eggs.
  • (In these examples, eggs is the direct object. Remember, lie cannot have a direct object.)

The Other Culprits

Lay (the past tense of to lie) is not common, and some people are tempted (incorrectly) to use laid. For example:
  • The crocodile laid still for hours.
  • (This should be be lay.)
Lain is quite a rare word, and some and some people are tempted (incorrectly) to use laid for this too. For example:
  • The snow had laid on the field all week.
  • (This should be lain.)