Grammar Tip #1: Lay vs Lie

Do Not Misuse Lay and Lie (even though Booker Prize winners have done so with impunity)

The best way to remember the difference between lay and lie is to know that lie is intransitive (no object) and lay is transitive (object).* Like so:

She lies in bed. (no object)
She lays the doll in its bed. (the doll is the object of the verb lay)

The reason people get confused is that the past tense of lie is lay (and also that everyone around them is confused!).

Here is how to conjugate the two verbs:

Present: She lies in bed.
Past: She lay in bed.
Past perfect: She has lain in bed.

Present: She lays the doll in its bed.
Past: She laid the doll in its bed.
Past perfect: She has laid the doll in its bed.

The following sentences are INCORRECT:

The dog lays down when I tell him to.
Lay down, Rover!
Just lie the book down over there.
She just laid there like there was nothing wrong.

If you misuse lay and lie, you are in good company. See G by John Berger, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and many more (though I think the real culprits here are publishing houses who don’t prioritize editing). Sure, all these books are fabulous and have done very well. But don’t make that an excuse to continue in error. Learn from the mistakes of others!

*There are other meanings of “to lay” that are intransitive and don’t tend to get confused with “to lie.” For example, one could say, “the hen lays,” which would mean that the hen produces eggs. A hunter can also “lay for deer.” And of course there is the verb “to lie” that means to say something untrue. But this is all a bit outside of our discussion for this week.

2 thoughts on “Grammar Tip #1: Lay vs Lie

  1. I am so pathetically thrilled that you have this section on your site. I am a TOTAL grammar nerd. I’m doing a style guide right now and need to provide some examples of Canadian spelling so looked some stuff up in the Oxford Canadian A-Z of Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation (don’t buy it). One of the atrocities I came across last night was their feeling that “further” and “farther” are synonymous when referring to distance. NO! It kept me up, Sarah, it kept me up.


  2. Dear Sarah,

    This is going to be gr-r-r-r-r-reat. Finally a place to vent my continual nagging about language with people who understand the pain. For example, talking with teenagers, which is a big part of my life, is an exercise in non-judgemental listening. I don’t like to stop them and correct language, like, because, like, it interrupts their train of thought. Like, it’s more important at this time in their lives, like, to get it out and not necessesarily say it right. Right?

    I have two questions which have been bothering me lately. I’m not sure this is the right venue but here goes:
    1) Why do folks currently use the singular in sentences such as “where’s my boots?” I even catch myself doing it sometimes. Are “my boots” a single unit made up of more than one item, as my sister, a professor of languags, suggests? In fact, she postulates, this is how language develops. Tell me that when some otherwise intelligent, well-educated person says, “I seen him downtown yesterday.” or “I would of came but I didn’t think you would of been there.”

    2) This is more an issue of just plain language, but why do we use the masculine in such expressions and expostulations such as: “Oh, boy, what a great dinner!” “Oh, man, am I ever tired!” and “Oh, brother, what a nut case!” Try substituting “girl,” “woman” and “sister.” You’d get a few funny looks.

    3) The sad loss of the subjunctive in current English usage. When was the last time you heard someone say: “I wish I were a famous chef?” “Was” seems to have crept in and stayed.

    Thanks for being here. I’ll probably never shut up.

    Welcome to the web.


    Martha (yes, I’m THE Martha)

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