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Commonly Confused:

Lie versus Lay

You know that one grammar mistake that will stop you in your tracks and send your hackles up, no matter what, no matter where, no matter how often you read it? Yeah. For me, that’s anytime I see a misuse of the commonly confused pair lie versus lay. Why are these two confused so often? I think it’s for two reasons, actually. But first, let’s begin with some definitions.

These are the specific definitions I am referring to for this article:

  • To lie – intransitive verb: to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position.

On Sunday mornings, I lie in my bed and waste the morning away.

  • To lay – transitive verb: to put or set down.

She lays her hand along the baby’s cheek, cherishing the softness.

The distinct difference between lie and lay—in their simplest, present-tense form—is that the latter requires a direct object and the former does not.

The confusion begins when the tense shifts out of present and into past; the past tense of the intransitive verb to lie is lay. Well, yeah, that’s confusing. And the past tense of the transitive verb to lay is laid.

 Yesterday, the children lay in the grass and watched the clouds.

He laid his plans for expansion across the table at the partners’ meeting.

The confusion is compounded with the past perfect tense of to lie, which is lain. The past perfect tense of to lay is laid.

You’ve lain in that bed all weekend!

We could have laid the bricks all day if the rain hadn’t stopped us.

I think these terms are commonly confused for two reasons. First because the past tense of one is the present tense of the other… that right there is enough to make you want to pull out your hair. But honestly, I think a large part of the confusion rests in the fact that every form of to lie and to lay other than the present tense sounds like lay. Of course that’s going to mix people up, author or not.

So when I started editing, I made up a little cheat sheet that said:

To Lie: No object

Lie/Lay/Lain/Lying (Present/Past/Perfect/Progressive)

To Lay: Takes on object

Lay/Laid/Laid/Laying (Present/Past/Perfect/Progressive)

And I’ve used it ever since. It’s not all-encompassing, but if anyone thinks it would help them, feel free to borrow it. Just remember the main rule between the two words: one is an intransitive verb and does not take a direct object and the other is a transitive verb and requires a direct object.

Happy writing!


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