The difference between the verbs lay and lie is one of English’s most confusing questions. Both words involve something or someone in a horizontal position, but where the two words differ has to do with who or what is horizontal—the subject of the verb (the one doing the action) or the direct object (the person or thing being acted upon).
In this article, we’ll break down the difference between lay and lie, including the past tense forms and the phrases lay down, lie down, and laid down.
Is it lay or lie?
Lay commonly means to put or place someone or something down, as in Lay the bags on the table or I’m going to lay the baby in the crib. It’s a transitive verb, meaning it requires a direct object (I lay the quilt on the couch; I lay the book on the table).
The sense of lie that’s often confused with lay means to be in or get into a reclining position—to recline, as in I just want to lie in bed for a few more minutes. Lie is an intransitive verb, meaning it does not take a direct object (Don’t just lie there).
Lay is typically used with an object, meaning someone or something is getting laid down by someone. In contrast, lie is something you do yourself without any other recipients of the action.
If you’re the one lying comfortably on your back, you want the verb lie, but if you can replace the verb with place or put (Please place the book on the table), then use the verb lay (Please lay the book on the table).
Though this use is considered nonstandard, lay is commonly used to mean the same thing as this sense of lie, as in I just want to lay in bed for a few more minutes. Although lay and lie are often used interchangeably in casual communication, it’s best to use them in the standard way in more formal contexts.
WATCH: Two Nerdy Steps To Learn "Lay" vs. "Lie"
lay vs. lie in the past tense
The confusion between the two words is largely due to the fact that lay is also the irregular past tense form of this sense of lie, as in I lay in bed yesterday morning wishing I could go back to sleep. (In contrast, when lie is used as a verb meaning to tell an untruth, its past tense is simply lied.) The past tense of lay as in “put or place down” is laid, as in I laid the bags on the table.
The past participle forms of lay and lie (formed with the helping verb have) are also distinct: lay maintains its past form laid, but lie becomes lain, as in I have lain in bed for the past three hours.
The continuous tense (-ing form) of this sense of lie is the same as the untruth sense: lying, as in I am lying in bed right now.
lay down or lie down
The “recline” sense of lie is commonly used in the verb phrase lie down, as in I was feeling tired so I decided to lie down. Using the phrase lay down to mean the same thing is considered nonstandard, but it’s also very common.
Lay down is also used as a verb phrase meaning about the same thing as lay, as in You can lay down your bags on the table (or You can lay your bags down on the table).
How to use lay and lie in a sentence
A good way to remember which one to use is to think about whether you could replace the word with put or recline. If you can replace it with put, you want to use lay, as in Please lay (put) the bags on the table. If you could replace the word with recline, you want to use lie, as in I just want to lie (recline) in bed for a few more minutes.
Here are several examples of how to correctly use lay and lie in a sentence, including examples with the past tense of both words and both used in the same sentence.
- I feel like I need to lie down.
- Please lay the groceries on the table.
- I laid all of the ingredients on the kitchen counter last night.
- Last night, I lay awake for hours, unable to sleep.
- I had just lain down to go to sleep when I heard a noise.
- I’m looking for the book that you had laid on the bedside table.
- He said he was just going to lay the blanket on the grass and lie on it for a few minutes, but he lied. After he laid the blanket down, he lay on it for two hours!
laying vs. lying
Laying is the present participle of lay. Like lay, laying is a transitive verb and typically uses a direct object. For example:
- I saw her laying flowers on the grave this morning.
- He had been laying the blankets on the beds the last time I saw him.
Lying is the present participle of lie, including in the sense of telling an untruth. Like lie, lying is an intransitive verb and doesn’t typically use a direct object. For example:
- My dog Buttercup was lying in her bed all afternoon.
- The sultana has been lying on a bed of luxurious cushions while talking to her advisors.
When used as gerunds, laying and lying again typically follow the same rules as before. Laying is typically used with an object while lying is not.
- Laying your head down may help with your migraines.
- My little brother loves lying around all day and doing nothing.