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Lie or Lay?

The verbs lie and lay confuse people because:

  • their meanings can be similar
  • one of the verbs (lie) has two completely different meanings
  • they vary between regular and irregular according to sense
  • they vary between transitive and intransitive according to sense
  • the present tense of lay is the past tense of the irregular lie

The following table summarizes these similarities and differences:

  to lie to lie to lay
basic meaning to tell a lie, an untruth to recline; to be in or to take a horizontal/resting position to put something down in a horizontal position
regular? regular
lie, lied, lied
irregular
lie, lay, lain
irregular
lay, laid, laid
transitive? direct object? intransitive
(no direct object)
intransitive
(no direct object)
transitive
(must have direct object)
3rd person s lies lies lays
present participle lying lying laying
past tense lied lay laid
past participle lied lain laid

Lie (regular, intransitive)

The first one above is easy. In the sense "to tell a lie, say something that is not true", lie is a regular verb and has no direct object. The past tense is always -ed. Look at these examples:

  • Some people lie about their age.
  • John lies about everything.
  • "I'm forty-nine," he lied.
  • We have all lied a few times in our lives.
  • That's not true! You're lying!

Lie (irregular, intransitive)

Now we come to the irregular lie, meaning "to be in, or to take, a horizontal/resting position". This is what we do on a bed, for example. We lie on our bed when we sleep.

The important thing to remember with lie is that it is intransitive, so there is no direct object. Look at this examples. You see there is no direct object.

Something lies (somewhere).
subject verb  
My dog lies on this mat.
Mary is lying on the sofa.

You also need to remember that the past tense of this lie is "lay", which is the same as the present tense of to lay. Look at this table of conjugation:

  present past present perfect
I lie lay* have lain
you lie lay* have lain
he, she, it lies lay has lain
we lie lay* have lain
you lie lay* have lain
they lie lay* have lain
*This is the same as the present tense of to lay.

Look at these example sentences:

  • I feel sick. I want to lie on the bed.
  • Usually I lie on the sofa and watch TV.
  • My dog always lies on this mat.
  • He loves this mat. Yesterday, he lay here all day.
  • She has lain in bed since she got ill.
  • After the aircrash, wreckage was lying all over the place.

Typical mistake

  • I always lay on a bench to do this exercise. (should be lie)
Lie is something that we do to ourselves. Lay is something that we do to other people or things.
  • I lie on the sofa when I'm tired.
  • Mary lays the baby in its crib when it cries.

Lay (irregular, transitive)

The main meaning of the verb lay is "to put (something) down in a horizontal position".

The important thing to remember with lay is that it is transitive, so it MUST have a direct object. You cannot just lay. You have to lay something. Look at these examples. You see they all have direct objects.

Something lays something (somewhere).
subject verb direct object  
Chickens lay eggs.  
Our chickens lay their eggs on the ground.
The nurses laid the wounded man on the bed.

Here is a table of conjugation:

  present past present perfect
I lay laid have laid
you lay laid have laid
he, she, it lays laid has laid
we lay laid have laid
you lay laid have laid
they lay laid have laid

Here are some example sentences:

  • The policeman told him to lay his gun on the ground.
  • The police usually lay a sheet over dead bodies.
  • This chicken lays three eggs every day.
  • He opened the books and laid them on the desk.
  • I have laid the carpet. You can walk on it now.
  • The phone rang just as she was laying the new clothes on the bed.
The verbs lie and lay can have other meanings too. Only the most common are shown here. There are also several phrasal verbs made with lie and lay. They follow the same basic rules as shown on this page.

Lie or Lay Quiz >

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