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The Difference Between Lay and Lie (Because This Debate Stumps Even the Best Writers)

by | Oct 31, 2019

If you were going to list the most commonly confused and misused words in English, lie and lay would definitely rank near the top.

It probably shouldn’t be a big deal. After all, lie and lay are two very different words with two very different meanings. 

Lie means “to be in a horizontal or resting position on something (a bed or the ground) or to get into that position.” Lay means “to put something down.” 

Nice and simple, right? But even so, people fall into the lie vs. lay debate. 

And for good reason. It’s easy to get confused in spite of their different meanings.

Lie and lay sound similar, they look similar, their meanings are similar, and don’t get us started on the similarities between their different tenses. Take the past tense of lie which is…lay. (Look, at least the past tense of lay isn’t lie.) It’s enough to make you want to lay (or should it be lie?*) down your head and cry.

*It’s lay. Trust us. And you’ll see why if you keep reading.

Lay vs. lie — It’s confusing for (almost) everyone

Famous musicians do it (raise your hands, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton), as do major media outlets (we’re looking at you, U.S. News & World Report and the New York Post, to name just a few). 

So you’re definitely not alone if you get a little shaky when you’re debating whether it should be lie or lay, lay or laid (or layed?) or lied, not to mention lay down or lie down, and so on.

Often it’s a lay that’s put in when it should be a lie, as in the title of Bob Dylan’s song “Lay, Lady Lay.”  Bob might have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he definitely wouldn’t win a Nobel Prize for grammar if there were one. It should be “Lie, Lady, Lie.” No, it doesn’t sound nearly as good, and it might be seen as meaning Dylan wanted the lady to tell a falsehood instead of lying down with him in his big brass bed, but it would be correct. Same goes for Eric Clapton’s classic rock song, “Lay Down, Sally,” which correctly should be “Lie Down, Sally.” If Clapton told Sally, “Lay down my guitar,” he would have been right. But he should tell Sally to lie down, not lay down.

Then there are the cases where someone gets confused with the past tense of lie and puts in a lied —  which is the past tense of the other lie, the not-telling-the-truth one, but not of the reclining horizontally lie.

Protesters lied down in a “die-in” and then confronted Chambers during Monday’s meeting, where he sat between two empty chair

U.S. News and World Report

Or they put in a laid … which is also wrong. 

Her mother Julia Eller said that after her daughter had jogged three or four miles on the trail, she laid down on a log to rest, and when she got up, was completely disoriented.

New York Post

Speaking of being completely disoriented, you might feel like that at this point too, wondering why these examples are incorrect. Why can’t that lady lay across Dylan’s bed? And how is it that “lied down” is wrong … but “laid down” is wrong too? 

It’s because lie and lay are two different kinds of verbs: One of them, lie, is intransitive, and the other, lay, is transitive. This makes all the difference in their usage.

What’s the difference between an intransitive and a transitive verb?

It’s actually very simple. An intransitive verb doesn’t have an object. In other words, it doesn’t do anything to anyone or anything. It’s just an action. In the case of lie, you lie down. Period. Nice and simple…and correct. You can lie down on the bed, on the couch, on the ground, on whatever you want, but the act of lying is complete all by itself.

A transitive verb, on the other hand, does have an object connected to it, something or someone the verb is doing something to. If it doesn’t have an object, it doesn’t make sense. Take the verb “to hit”. You wouldn’t just say, “I hit.” You hit what? Whatever that “what” is is essential to its meaning. And that’s how it works with lay: you lay something down — your head, a book, whatever.  In the case of Eric Clapton’s Sally, if he was saying “lay down your head, Sally,” it would be fine. But just “lay down, Sally” doesn’t work.

Okay, so far so good…but it gets a bit more sticky when you look at the tenses. 

As we said before, in the past tense lie becomes lay, and lay becomes laid…which is also the past participle of lay. But the past participle of lie is lain. (As for layed, which we’ve also seen in different articles and posts — just forget about it. It’s an archaic spelling that is now considered incorrect, so don’t even think about writing about something being layed down, okay? Thank you.)

Lie vs. lay: A handy chart

To make life simpler, here’s a little chart:

And there you have it — an explanation of the often perplexing lay vs. lie aka laying vs. lying issue. We can now (euphemistically) lay down our pen (or, actually, keyboard) and rest our—

No, wait a second. There is one more thing, one more quirk to lie and lay. You know the old bedtime rhyme “Now I lay me down to sleep.” You might now be thinking it shouldn’t be lay in there, but lie. But actually that lay is absolutely correct because it’s used transitively, with an object — myself or me. That said, it could also be written intransitively as “Now I lie down to sleep.” 

Isn’t grammar fun? And that’s no lie. 

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