Lie vs. Lay

egg-laying end of a chicken, and two eggs

“Chicken and Egg” by Leslie Seaton. Used under Creative Commons license.


(Skip to tips on how to “get it right.”)

Dear lie,

You are going to become extinct, and it’s your own fault for overlapping your past tense with another word’s present tense. I mean, seriously, who does that? I do love you, but my money’s on lay to consume you. Sorry!

Dear reader,

Do you get frustrated trying to figure out when to use lay and when to use lie? If you’d like to help get rid of this problem once and for all, simply stop using the verb lie to mean “recline.” Instead, just use lay. Yes, you will cause some people to cringe, and many will think less of you. Yes, your story might get rejected by a particularly pedantic editor. But you’ll be a proud crusader for language change and the elimination of verbs that are just asking for it.

If you try to maintain the traditional use of lie, you’ll only be perpetuating the confusion and discrimination for another generation. And seriously, lie’s demise is inevitable. Why not take the hit and thereby save future generations from suffering? If everybody eliminates lie, it will cease to exist. If everybody uses lay instead, lay will eventually be seen as correct, and we can check that off our list as another difficult word we don’t have to deal with. (Endangered animals and plants can disappear in a few years, but the extinction of lie will probably take a couple of generations, so you’ll need to have the courage to be seen as “wrong” for your whole life.)

I’m not sure if I’m being sarcastic or not. I really do take a linguist’s view of language change: descriptive not prescriptive, and all that. But on the other hand, I believe that agreeing on standards helps us communicate, and I believe that precision and diversity are valuable. Also, I work hard to use these verbs “correctly.” Am I willing to give that up “for the cause,” when the cause is the death of a word? Um…so far, I’m not. But I’ll think about it and get back to you.

If you’ve decided to fight for the endangered species lie, or you just need to “get it right” so your editor will be happy, read on. Otherwise, go forth and boldly use lay for everything! I’ll try not to mind.

Get It “Right”

If you can’t stand grammar terms, I guess you could skip the next two paragraphs. But seriously, if you’re a writer, it would really help you to learn about the structure of language. It’s like learning about pigments for a painter. And it makes understanding this distinction so much easier.

Lay is a transitive verb. This means it must always take a direct object. If there’s no direct object in your sentence, don’t use lay. (A direct object is a noun that the verb acts on. For example, in the sentence “Chickens lay eggs,” eggs is the direct object.)

Lie is an intransitive verb. This means it never takes a direct object. (You can’t say “Chickens lie eggs.”)

Here is where things get complicated. The past tense of lie is “lay.” Also, lay oneself down is a synonym for lie down. I am sorry about this. You might want to change your mind and join in the extinction of lie. But if you still want to try to save lie, let’s do this:

Intuition Tests

When you know you can’t trust your intuition in a language situation, the best thing to do is to create a test that uses a parallel situation for which you can trust your intuition.

For example, to know whether to use me or I in a list of a bunch of people, you can remove the people, choose the pronoun based on language intuition, and then put all the people back.
(Example: “Give it to Sally, Jake, and I/me.” Remove list: “Give it to I/me.” You know this should be “Give it to me,” therefore when you add the list back, you say “Give it to Sally, Jake, and me.”)

Your intuition is correct for lie. You will never, for example, accidentally write “Chickens lie eggs” or “I’m lying this book on the table.” These sound wrong, and you can hear it. Yay!

But you probably do accidentally use lay when you “should” use lie, so we need to devise a test you can employ that will take advantage of your correct intuition from some other language situation.

Here are two tests. Try them out and see if one works for you.

IMPORTANT: I am only talking about the present tense right now. If your sentence is not in the present tense, you will have to find other help while you wait for me to figure out how to explain other tenses (or see Verb Specs at the end of this article). But let’s take the long view. Learn to get it “right” in the present tense, and then later we can work on other tenses.

Test 1: Replace with “Recline”

Lie means “recline,” and it can be replaced with “recline” in a sentence. For example, “I am lying on the floor” can become “I am reclining on the floor” and mean more or less the same thing. So, when you’re about to use lay, ask yourself yourself if you mean “recline.” If you do, use lie. (PRESENT TENSE ONLY!)

For example:
Please lay/lie on the floor. (You mean (more or less) “Please recline on the floor.” Therefore, you should say “Please lie on the floor.”)
Please lay/lie this book on the floor. (You mean “Please set this book on the floor.” You don’t mean “Please recline this book on the floor.” That sentence sounds wrong. In fact, your intuition already tells you that “Please lie this book on the floor” is wrong, so this is an easy one.)

Test 2: Chickens Lay Eggs

Remember that lay always needs a direct object, such as “eggs” in the sentence Chickens lay eggs? Whenever you’re about to use lay, ask yourself “Where are the eggs?” Check if there is a person, place, or thing that you can replace with “eggs” in the sentence. If there is, keep lay. If not, change it to lie. (You have to lay something. Yes, I realize there is another method you could use to remember this. Go ahead and use it if you prefer.)

Here are some examples:
I’m going to ____ this book on the table. (Where are the eggs? “This book” is the eggs. You can say “I’m going to lay eggs on the table,” so lay is correct.)
I’m going to ____ here and read a book. (Where are the eggs? There are no eggs, therefore use lie. (If you’re thinking of saying “I’m going to lay here and read eggs,” remember that we’re looking for “lay eggs,” not “read eggs.” If you’re thinking “I’m going to lay eggs and read a book,” remember that here is not a noun, so it can’t be a direct object. )
I fell down, and then I was _____ on the floor. (No eggs; use lie. “I was lying on the floor.”)
Please ____ your jacket on the floor. (Where are the eggs? “Your jacket” is the eggs. You can say “Please lay eggs on the floor,” so lay is correct.)
I was _____ my jacket on the floor when she told me to use the coat rack. (Where are the eggs? “My jacket” is the eggs. You can say “I was laying eggs on the floor,” so lay is correct.)

Verb Specs

I am out of time for this article. I hope what I’ve written so far helps you begin your quest either to cause the extinction of lie or to help save lie from extinction. And if you’re determined to save lie, the present tense covers a lot of the cases you will encounter, so you’re well on your way! I will work on the explanations for other tenses and post them when I can.

However, if the following lists help you, they should be enough:

Lie
Verb: lie. Intransitive (doesn’t take a direct object). Means: recline.
Present tense/plain form: lie (e.g. Every day, I lie on the floor. I like to lie on the floor. Tomorrow I will lie on the floor.)
Past tense: lay (e.g. Yesterday I lay on the floor.)
Past participle: lain (e.g. Many times I have lain on the floor.)
Present participle: lying (e.g. Today I am lying on the floor. Yesterday I was lying on the floor. Many times I have been lying on the floor when the phone rang.)

Lay
Verb: lay. Transitive (must take a direct object). Means: set down
Present tense/plain form: lay (e.g. Every day, I lay a book on the floor. I like to lay books on the floor. Tomorrow I will lay a book on the floor.)
Past tense: laid (e.g. Yesterday I laid a book on the floor.)
Past participle: laid (e.g. Many times I have laid books on the floor.)
Present participle: laying (e.g. Today I am laying a book on the floor. Yesterday I was laying a book on the floor. Many times I have been laying a book on the floor when the phone rang.)