Lie or Lay? Grammar Confusion Laid to Rest

by Davina on February 1, 2012

Lie versus lay

While researching this common grammatical question I decided that a visual tool would help you remember the difference between lie and lay.

In the photo I chose, either lie “to rest” or lay “to place” could be applied correctly. It simply depends on the action that is taking place.

There are two possible scenarios here:

1. The child chose to have a rest on the sofa.

You would use the verb lie (to rest). The child wanted to lie on the sofa.

However, you could also say The child lay himself down on the sofa.
(He placed himself on the sofa with himself being the object.)

2. Someone placed the child on the sofa. Again, because the child is the object receiving the action you would use the verb lay (to place).

2 helpful tips to remember the difference:

1. Define lie and lay.
Lie means “to rest”. Lay means “to place”. What action is happening? Are you lying (to rest) down or are you laying (to place) something (an object) down?

(Lie also means “to deceive”. We will not discuss that here to keep things simple.)

2. The word lay requires a direct object while the word lie does not.
In the following examples baby is the object that is receiving the action. Notice that the verb lay (to place) applies in those cases.

Present Tense

Lie (to rest): You lie on the sofa. / You are lying on the sofa.
Lay (to place): You lay the baby on the sofa. / You are laying the baby on the sofa.

Past Tense*

Lie (to rest): You lay down to rest earlier today.
Lay (to place): You laid the baby down to rest earlier today.

*It gets confusing because lay (to place) also serves as the past tense of lie (to rest). Here they appear in the same sentence:

You can lie beside your baby after you lay him down on the sofa.

Past Participle

Lie (to rest): You have lain on the sofa since this morning.
Lay (to place): You have laid the baby down to rest.

Lie and lay: a common grammatical error

The most common grammatical error with these two verbs is conjugating lay (to place) when you should be conjugating lie (to rest).

Example: The child laid still for hours.

This is incorrect because laid is the past tense of “to place”.

The child is resting and therefore this sentence should read as The child lay still for hours.

Remember Eric Clapton’s hit song Lay Down Sally? Well, this title is grammatically incorrect. It would be correct if written as Lie Down Sally (to rest) or Lay Me Down Sally (to place). In the second example, “Me” is the object that would be receiving the action. So, not to sound like a broken record — no pun intended — when conjugating the word lay it needs to refer to an object in the sentence.

If you’re still confused, remember that a chicken lays an egg. The egg is the object that is receiving the action. Using lay is correct because lay always requires an object.

Recognize the difference between “to rest” and “to place” in these 4 examples:

1. The chicken was lying in its nest when it laid an egg.
2. The chicken lies in its nest, laying eggs.
3. The chicken lies on top of the egg that it just laid.
4. The chicken has lain in its nest all day and has not laid one egg.

Do you have any other tips on how to remember the difference between lie and lay?
Is there another word that confuses you?

Image Credit: Lars Plougmann

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{ 16 comments }

Deb Dorchak February 1, 2012 at 9:55 am

This is really spooky…while lying in bed this morning after having just woken up, I had this odd conversation going on in my head “What’s the difference between lie and lay? I’m gonna have to look this one up on the net later…”

Lo and behold, you’ve answered the question for me. Thanks Davina!
Deb Dorchak´s last blog post ..Stop the Madness!

Barbara Swafford February 1, 2012 at 11:36 am

Hi Davina,

You’re right. This can get confusing. I know I’ve used lie and lay incorrectly many times.

LOL. That’s too funny that “Lay Down Sally” is grammatically incorrect. Leave it to you to spot that. Wouldn’t that mean “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan would be wrong, too? That said, both titles just wouldn’t sound right if you changed lay to lie.
Barbara Swafford´s last blog post ..5 Ways To Increase Blog Comments

Linda February 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm

“Lie Lady Lie” would definitely change the meaning of the song.

Thanks, Davina, for shedding some light on whether we are lying or laying.
Linda´s last blog post ..Groundhog Day 2012

Davina February 2, 2012 at 9:58 am

LOL, Deb.
It’s funny those things we think about while we’re lying in bed. I’m glad to have helped you out!

Thanks, Barbara.
Yes, “Lay Lady Lay” is also incorrect :) Good catch. I agree that “Lie Down Sally” just wouldn’t sound right. But I wonder if it’s only because we’re so used to it?

Hehe, Linda.
Yes it would! :-) You’re welcome. I’m glad this has helped you.

Tony Single February 5, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Nice. A Dylan reference and a lesson. I’d like more of this please! So, when I said, “Lay me down in a forest of clouds” in my previous post, that turned out to be correct. Lucky!
Tony Single´s last blog post ..The Deaf Penalty

Hilary February 6, 2012 at 11:49 am

Hi Davina .. I did have something to question you about – but I forgot! It’ll come back or a similar query … I can’t think right now – but thought I’d come past ..

Possibly it was past and passed .. there’s a thought ..

Cheers Hilary

patricia February 6, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Great post and good information sharing, I like reading these and have referenced a couple now when working with kids on writing – Thank you for that resource.

I do not teach grammar very well, because I heard it correctly spoken and written at home for most of my life and thus it came extremely easy to me and I did not learn the lessons. I also did not try to pick up cultural norms, such as my one child saying “like” many times in each sentence?

But I did try to irritate my mother by using me and I incorrectly at the end of a sentence; I just always used I so was wrong and corrected millions of times. It so upset my Mother. Now my husband has taken to correcting me and it still just rolls off my tongue. I think I do not care !
patricia´s last blog post ..With A Little Help From My Friends

Davina February 7, 2012 at 6:13 am

Okay, Tony, I’ll see what I can lay out for you, lol. Have a lie down while you wait :)

Yes, you were grammatically correct. “Lay me down in a forest of clouds” is correct. I love that line!

Hehe, Hilary.
Your query passed in the past :-) Nice to have you pop by for a layover!

Thanks, Patricia!
I’m glad these posts are helping you :) If there is anything specific you would like me to cover, just let me know.

I hear “like” used all the time. It’s often used in writing too, when in fact “such as” is correct. Good grammar is easily lost these days with us spending so much time online. When something comes so naturally it can be a challenge to explain or teach it. Sounds like you’ve got the me/I practice going well though! :-)

J.D. Meier February 14, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Very well done. I like the way you laid out the examples and walked through them, in a simple way that’s easy to follow. It’s a beautiful conceptual framework.

Now I have to wonder … did you lay the topic “to rest” or, have you laid the topic to rest, or is this only the beginning?

I haven’t used “lain” in a long time, but now I want to lie down and ponder that.

I wonder what will lie on my mind tonight … could it be this post?
J.D. Meier´s last blog post ..What I’ve Learned About Love

Davina February 16, 2012 at 10:46 am

Thanks, JD!
“Lain” just looks wrong, doesn’t it? At least I think so.

LOL, I love how many times you’ve practised conjugating in your comment :-) Well done! I don’t believe I have laid the topic to rest, actually. A number of times since I’ve written this post I’ve come back to refer to it just to make sure I’m being accurate. It’s a tricky one.

John Mak February 23, 2012 at 4:51 am

Hi Divana, great post! I am usually reading about marketing, business and other kind of blog posts everyday but this is sure a completely different one! Thanks for sharing,
John
John Mak´s last blog post ..VMWare Workstation 8 Review: Helps You Build Your Virtual Environment

alexwebsitetemplates March 2, 2012 at 5:53 am

That’s nice that you pointed it out, because sometimes in fluent speech I just ignore to think how to say that correctly and just says what first comes to my mind. Plus, I really like how you illustrate it with the baby. It really makes things clear.

Pete Goumas March 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Hey Davina,
Wow…You have beautifully explained the difference between lie and lay.I think I have to come more often on your website to gain more grammar knowledge.
Pete Goumas´s last blog post ..Gaiam Coupons & Review

Davina April 1, 2012 at 8:28 am

Hi John.
I’m glad you enjoyed this! Thanks for visiting.

Hi Alex
Thank you. This confused me often and using the image of the baby helped to reinforce it for me :) I agree, that in speech this just rolls off our tongue. They sound similar too.

Hi Pete.
Thank you! I appreciate that. I’m glad this was helpful to you. :)

Syeda Mehwish April 13, 2012 at 3:56 pm

It’s a comprehensive post on the difference between lie or lay. Although it looks funny sometimes when we find this mistake but it’s a common mistake that people do. Looking forward for more interesting posts.Thanks, Davina
Syeda Mehwish´s last blog post ..Moosejaw Coupon Code and Review

Davina April 16, 2012 at 8:27 am

You’re welcome, Syeda.
It does look funny for sure! It often looks funny when it is written correctly, too :)

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