Lie vs. lay is one of our most confusing word choices.
You might want to lie down when you finish reading this blog, but I’ll lay it on you anyway. I’m counting on my examples to help you make the right choices.
lie: to recline
Nicole can’t wait to lie on the beach in Florida.
Steve thinks he should lie on several mattresses before he decides which one to buy.
Grandpa likes to lie on the couch and take a nap.
Tip: Lie shares three letters — l, i and e — and a similar i sound with recline.
Other forms of lie:
Grandpa lies on the couch every day.
He will lie on the couch tomorrow.
He has lain on the couch every day for a month.
He would have lain there sooner if he’d had the chance.
but: He lay there all yesterday afternoon.*
Tip: You want to recline, to lie, on something soft. The letter d is a hard sound, so laid should never be used when talking about reclining.
lay: to place
Nicole wants me to lay her towel on the sand.
The salesperson asked Steve to lay his shoes on the floor before trying the mattress.
Grandpa asked me to lay his glasses on the nightstand.
Tip: Lay shares two letters‚ l and a — and a similar a sound with place.
And lay requires an object; you have to lay something: a book, a set of keys, a pair of shoes, etc.
Other forms of lay:
I lay Grandpa’s glasses on the nightstand.
I laid them on the nightstand yesterday.
I will lay the glasses there tomorrow.
He often has laid them there himself.
I would not have laid them there if he hadn’t asked me to.
but: Grandpa left his glasses lying on the nightstand.*
Notice the two exceptions:*
The past tense of lie is lay, the verb that also means to place:
He lay there all yesterday afternoon.*
Although you lay objects on something, once they get there, they are described as lying.
Grandpa left his glasses lying on the nightstand.*
I have yet to think of a catchy, easy way to remember the difference between these two uses of lie and lay. In essence:
Lie is to recline. Lay is to place.
The past tense of lie is lay. An object that is placed somewhere is lying there.
Is it any wonder people consider English a complicated language?!
You likely won’t be judged for using lie or lay wrong; few people keep them straight. But as The Ruthless Editor, I need to know the difference and to try to set a good example.
Two more tips:
Avoid laying in all cases; it is nonstandard English.
Don’t count on silly spellcheck to make the right choice for you.
Kathleen Watson is known as the ruthless editor. She has just published an excellent grammar book that clears up questions that have been festering. Lie vs. lay is just one of 60 tips you’ll find in Grammar for People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor. At $8.95, that’s just 15 cents a tip!
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