We’re going to ask you a question. And we want you to think very carefully about the answer. Are you ready? Here we go: Should you use lay vs. lie in the following sentence: “Steve wants to ____ down”?
Lay and lie are short and simple words that we’ve all heard many, many times before. So this seems like it should be an easy one, right?
But is doesn’t really feel easy. In fact, you may feel pretty torn between the two options. Is it lay or is it lie? (And no, they aren’t both correct.)
The good news is that you don’t have anything to lose by taking a guess. So give this your best shot and check out our explanation of the different between lay vs. lie below.
Why is it so hard to remember the difference because lay vs. lie? Because both words look similar and have similar definitions. But they do differ in an important way.
Lay means to place something down. You use it in sentences like these:
- “Kate, please lay the key on the hall table.”
- “We’ll lay the picture frames down over there.”
- “Let’s lay the menus on the counter like this.”
Do you notice something about all of these sentences? They all describe someone laying something down. That’s because lay is what we call a transitive verb, a verb that needs to be paired with an object. In words, you can use lay only if you’re talking about someone laying something down.
So when you’re thinking about the difference between lay vs. lie, remember that lay is the word that means to place something down.
Now you know what lay means. But what about lie?
Lie means to recline or rest in a horizontal position (as in what you do when you sleep on a bed). You use it in sentences like these:
- “I’m going to lie down.”
- “Kim may lie down in a bit if she doesn’t feel better.”
- “Let’s lie on the beach and look at the stars.”
If you looked at these sentences carefully, you may have noticed that they all talk about someone lying down. There isn’t an object involved in the way that there had to be with lay. That’s because lie is what we call an intransitive verb, a verb that doesn’t get paired with an object. In other words, you can use lie only if you’re talking about someone reclining or resting horizontally, not something being made to recline or rest in this position.
So when you’re thinking about the difference between lay vs. lie, remember that lie describes what happens when someone reclines or rests horizontally.
The past tense of lay vs. lie: where things get tricky
Are you feeling like you now have a decent grasp of the difference between lay vs. lie? Good, because we’re about to throw you a curve ball: the past tense of lie is lay.
Yup, it’s true.
In the present tense, lay vs. lie are two different words. But lay is also the past tense form of lie. It’s confusing as heck – we know.
When you’re using lay as the past tense of lie, you use it in sentences like these:
- “Yesterday, Amy lay down on the grass.”
- “Kim lay down because she wasn’t feeling well.”
- “Last night, we lay on the beach and looked at the stars.”
If you’re thinking that lay sounds incredibly awkward in these sentences, you’re probably not alone. But lay is the right word here. We promise.
Okay, so if lay is the past tense of lie, what’s the past tense of lay? Laid. When you placed something down in the past, you laid it down. Here’s how you use laid in a sentence:
- “Kate laid the key on the hall table.”
- “We laid the picture frames down over there.”
- “They laid the menus on the counter like this.”
Laid sounds less awkward than past-tense lay did, right? That’s because we tend to use the past tense of lay correctly but the past tense of lie incorrectly. We’re so used to seeing and hearing the incorrect word that we don’t recognize the right past tense form when we see it.
How to keep lay vs. lie straight
We hate to break it to you, but as far as we know, there’s no easy trick for remembering the difference between lay vs. lie. Even grammar experts like Grammar Girl admit to having to look up the difference every now and then. (Which means that you shouldn’t feel bad at all if you fall into this camp.)
In the absence of a handy strategy for keeping lay vs. lie straight, we’ve created this table:
Feel free to use it whenever these words give you a headache!
Lay vs. lie may seem like two small, harmless words. But they sure know how to make your head spin. How can you keep them in check? Remember that you use lay to describe placing an object down and you use lie to describe someone reclining or resting horizontally.
And when it comes to putting these verbs into a different tense, don’t be afraid to look them up.
Should you use anyway or anyways in this sentence: “______, I have to get going”? Find the answer in our post on the difference between anyway vs. anyways.