Lay vs. lie: What’s the difference?

Lay vs. lie?

Lay and lie are both irregular verbs used to describe different actions. Lay is used when an object is set down in place, while lie is used when something is reclining or made to be flat. However, lay is also used as the past tense form of lie.

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What’s the difference between lay vs. lie?

Learning the difference between lay and lie is complicated because both irregular verbs are synonymous with each other in specific contexts. For instance, if we look up the definition of lay in a dictionary, we will find several explanations that include meanings for lie and vice versa. So how do we tell the difference? 

Lay and lie are confusing words because they each represent different types of homonyms. In case you’re wondering, homonyms are sets of words with the same spelling or pronunciation but carry different meanings and etymologies. 

For example, we use lay and lie to talk about sleep, calmness, secrets, and hiding, or even locations, layers, and positions of objects. However, the verb lie is also used for the act of making an untrue statement, which is unrelated to the question of lay vs. lie
It’s important not to find yourself lost in the details, though. In the context of lay vs. lie, grammarians are often distinguishing confusion involving sleep, object positions, or hidden meanings. But don’t worry, we will discuss everything else in between.

What does lay mean?

The only times we exclusively use lay and its verb tense forms (i.e., laid and laying) is when we describe the act of placing an object down. This can become more abstract when we use lay to discuss animal eggs, the act of planning something, gambling, or making accusations against someone.

We use the word lay in the same sense as:

“Put the object down…”

“Place the object down…”

“Set down the object…”

“Set the objects on the table…”

Additional synonyms of lay include: 

Deposit, rest, situate, sit, settle, stow, balance, station, drop, leave, deploy, locate, and position.

How to use lay in a sentence

Lay is a transitive verb, which means it’s only used with a direct object in a sentence. How we use the world lay depends on the verb tense form within a sentence, which include:

  • Infinitive of lay: to lay 
  • Past-tense of lay: laid
  • Past participle of lay: has/have laid 
  • Present participle of lay: laying

Examples of lay in each verb tense include:

Infinitive of lay: The bird arrived at the nest to lay her eggs.

Past tense of lay: The child laid out their homework for inspection. 

Past participle of lay: She has laid out a proposal for us to consider.

Present participle of lay: We are laying out flowers to dry. 

What does lie mean?

The most common way to use lie in a sentence is when discussing the act of reclining or resting in a flat position. It’s important not to confuse this definition of lie with the word’s other meaning, though, which is to tell an untrue statement. 

How to use lie in a sentence

Because the word lie is an intransitive verb, writers don’t need to use it with a direct object in a sentence. The verb tense forms for lie are as followed:

Infinitive of lie: to lie

Past tense of lie: lay

Past participle of lie: has/have lain

Present participle of lie: lying

Here are a few example sentences on how to use lie in each verb tense:

Infinitive of lie: Tell the dog to lie down.

Past tense of lie: I told the dog to lay down. 

Past participle of lie: The boy has lain in bed all night. 

Present participle of lie: We are lying down for bed. 

Lay vs. lie context guide

Now that we’ve discussed the grammatical technicalities behind lay vs. lie let’s get to the real reason lay and lie are often confused: technical grammar rules are not socially inherent while learning a language. We learn how to speak and write well with practice and real-life examples. 

Native English speakers know how lay and lie are used interchangeably depending on the sentence context. For non-native English speakers, this makes understanding the difference between lay and lie very difficult. To make the process of learning how to use lay and lie more simple, here is a context guide to help understand when to use lay or lie in a sentence. 

Sleep and rest: lay or lie?

As mentioned before, the correct verb for resting or reclining is lie. However, the English language often uses lay in sentences when discussing the subject of rest. For example,

The mother laid her child in bed and said goodnight. 

In this example, the past tense of lay is used to place the child into bed, but the overall takeaway from the sentence is that the child is now asleep. 

If one is resting in a horizontal position, but they are not asleep, we still use the word lie. For example, 

Stay here and lie still until I come back.

The soldiers lie awake all night, anticipating a battle. 

In this sense, the word lie implies more than an act of rest because lie can additionally imply the act of resting in a vulnerable state. While sleeping or resting is technically a vulnerable state in itself, the action doesn’t inherently carry this connotation in every sentence it’s used.

Object rest and position: lay or lie?

We already know that we use lay to describe placing an object down in a resting position or location. For example,

Lay down your weapon.

You will find my towel laid out on the beach. 

But if you’re asked to describe more complex scenarios, you might find it difficult to know whether to use lay or lie. 

For example, lay is also used as a verb to describe the distribution or spreading out of something over a surface. 

I watched as my father unrolled the grass and laid down the patches to create a lawn. 

The patches of grass lie over the lawn soil. 

In these two examples, we are using lay and lie to describe the lawn, but neither case is grammatically incorrect. The first example illustrates the acts of setting down manufactured grass, while the second example describes how the grass rests on top of the soil. 

Lay is also used to describe the act of creating an order of objects into position, but there are also scenarios where we could use lie as well. 

The construction workers laid out the road toward the east. 

The road lies to the east.  

As we can see from these two examples, the same rule lie vs. lay rule is applied to each sentence. But even though one uses lay and the other uses lie, they each convey information regarding the direction of the road. 

Lay is additionally used to describe two objects that are positioned against in or in contact with one another, or positioned in preparation for action. Within this same context, lay is additionally used to describe the act plotting or preparing strategic events. For example,

The general laid out his army for battle. 

I’m going to lay out a bear trap in the backyard. 

Behind the house lies a bear trap waiting for its next victim. 

The first example uses the word lay because the general is placing his army in strategic positions. The next two examples are less obvious, though. The second example involves placing or laying a trap, while the third example states how the trap rests in the backyard. 

The key difference is how the third example uses lie to describe how the trap is rested, presumably in a horizontal fashion, while the active verb in the sentence is “waiting.” Not so simple, right? In this sense, lie is sometimes synonymously used as “is.” If we replaced lies with “is,” the sentence would have the same meaning. 

Behind the house is a bear trap waiting for its next victim. 

The hidden verb-tense: the third-person

You’re probably picking up on how there must be a rule to using lie in each of these examples, and you’re not wrong. The exception of using lie outside the general notion of rest exists in the form of using lie for third person present tense. 

Third-person tense is frequently found within literature or when somebody is telling a story aloud. We often use the verb lie in third-person tense for the following actions:

  • The act of an inanimate object, such as a magazine, resting flat. 
  • To remain in a place where something is unused.
  • The situation or position where an object is located. 
  • To have space to exist, or to consist of something, or belong. 

This is why there are so many phrases or concepts that use the word lie where we would typically use lay instead. After all, it’s logical to assume how most things exist in the location where they are placed. 

Hidden objects and meanings: lay or lie?

Moving on, lay and lie are also used to describe hidden objects or meanings, and are often used within metaphorical phrases. For example, we use lay within the theoretical expression of placing something nonmaterial, such as a feeling or a sense, on to another verb. 

We must lay stress on the importance of conformity. 

What lies beneath these dark waters is the elusive giant squid. 

Based on these two examples, we can see how the verb lay is used to place objects beyond the literal material form. However, the verb lies is used in place of where we would expect to use lay otherwise. Grammar students will discover how lie is commonly used to define a place for an elusive or reappearing presence, or a state of concealed inactivity (as in to lie in wait). 

The same rule applies to the intransitive verb form of lie, which is used in the phrase “to lie low.” This common phrase is used to describe a state of defeat or disgrace, to be in hiding, or to be secretly hidden in preparation for action against another.

Does the chicken lay or lie eggs?

Another standard grammar error for understanding lay vs. lie involves the conundrum of eggs, particularly chicken eggs. While we don’t always know “why the chicken crossed the road,” we do know the chicken always lays the egg. For example,

Chickens are known to lay eggs.

The chicken laid eggs.

The hen has laid an egg.

The hens are laying eggs. 

The past participle form of lie in place of lay’s is a dead give-away if you’re unsure about your usage for this context. If we use the past participle form of lie, the sentence would state, “The hens have lain an egg.” When spoken aloud, it’s clear how this doesn’t make sense.

Are you telling a lie?

The final common misconception involving lay vs. lie involves the noun lie, which as nothing to do with lie (to recline) or lay (put down). As a noun, the word lie defines a truth that is veiled by an untruth. The word liar is similarly used as a noun to describe someone who tells a lie.

Examples of how to use lie in this context include:

Hank is a liar

She will lie to you. 

Sometimes people tell lies

The bank lied to us last night.

They are lying about their debt. 

As we can see from these examples, the big difference between each verb tense of lie and the verb tenses of lie (to recline), is how the past tense of lie is “lied,” and not “lain.” 

Other notable uses of lay

There are several other uses for the word lay outside the context of lay vs. lie. Here is a quick run-down of how they are used: 

Gambling

Lay is used as a verb to describe the act of gambling. Synonyms include bet, wager, risk, and venture. For example,

I should have laid my money down when I had the chance.

Accusations

Sometimes lay is used as a verb to describe the act of accusing somebody of something, imposing a consequence against another person, or providing a judgment against another. Synonyms of lay in this context include: bring forward, submit, advance, press, file, or table

The child laid the blame on his sister.

The case was laid to the Supreme Court. 

Similarly to the act of accusations, the expression “lay into” is used to describe the action of verbally attacking somebody. 

Test Yourself!

Show your skills as a proofreader by editing the following sentences to ensure they are using the correct verb tense of lay or lie. If the sentence’s use of lay or lie is incorrect, pick the correct verb tense from the available options.  

  1. We are going to lie down on the beach. 
    a. Lie
    b. Lay 
    c. Lain 
  2. The cats had lain next to the fireplace. 
    a. Lain 
    b. Layed
    c. Laid
  3. They will lay awake all night thinking about the next day. 
    a. Lay 
    b. Lain
    c. Lie
  4. The agenda for the week is already laid out. 
    a. Laid
    b. Layed
    c. Lain
  5. It’s time to lay down for bed.
    a. Lay
    b. Lie
    c. Lain
  6. During the earthquake, the students are told to lay down under their desks.
    a. Lay 
    b. Lain
    c. Lie
  7. He knew his sister had lied when he saw his shoes lying under the bed. 
    a. Lying
    b. Lay
    c. Laying
  8. Before building, it’s important to lay down your tools. 
    a. Lay
    b. Lie
    c. Lain
  9. The hens have not laid any eggs. 
    a. Laid
    b. Layed
    c. Lay
  10. The path to school lies south through the woods. 
    a. Lies
    b. Lied 
    c. Lays 

Answers

  1. A: Lie 
  2. A: Lain
  3. C: Lie
  4. B: Layed
  5. B: Lie
  6. C: Lie
  7. C: Laying
  8. A: Lay
  9. B: Layed
  10. A: Lies

Sources

  1. Homonym.” British Council, BBC World Service, 2019. 
  2. Lay.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University, 2019. 
  3. Lay.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019. 
  4. Lay.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019. 
  5. Lie.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University, 2019. 
  6. Lie.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019. “Lie.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.

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