There are two major points to remember about using lay vs. lie:
- In the present tense, lie is what a person or thing does on its own, while lay is what another person or thing does to it.
- Lay is the past tense of lie.
Sometimes it can feel like grammar rules just lie in wait, ready to trip you up. The lay vs. lie question is one of those—figuring out the right choice seems convoluted even for experienced writers and native English speakers. But you can be ready for it before it pounces. We’ll show you how by explaining the difference between lay and lie, offering a few examples, and then testing your knowledge.
Lay vs. lie meanings
Let’s look at the definitions first. Note that both lay and lie have many definitions; for example, lay can be an adjective describing a person who is not a member of the clergy, and lie can be a verb for making a false statement. But in this article, we’re focusing on the following meanings, which are at the center of the confusion surrounding these two words:
lay (v.): to put a person or thing on something (literally or figuratively)
lie (v.): to put oneself on something in a reclining position; to exist in a certain place or position
These definitions show that lay is something done to another person or thing, while lie is something a person or thing does to or by itself. In grammar nerd-speak, lay takes a direct object, and lie doesn’t.
The confusion comes with that and the difference between the verb tenses. Let’s break down the verb tenses to clear things up.
As you can see, the words are different except that the past tense of lie is lay. This is good news—it means that if you can remember these two points, you’ll have it all figured out:
- A person or thing lies itself but lays someone or something else.
- The past tense of lie is lay.
Other factors might add to the mix-up too, like the mistaken (but apparently common) belief that lie is for people and lay is for things, or the variety of meanings of lie. But when it comes to this meaning of the word, just remember the two points above and you can stop worrying about being unclear, getting embarrassed, or seeing more red marks on your paper in class. Or you can enter your text in QuillBot for a free, quick, and trustworthy grammar check.
How to use lay vs. lie
It’s one thing to understand their definitions, but it’s another thing to use lay or lie and their other forms, such as laying or lying, correctly in a sentence. Let’s look at some examples so you can see how they work and when to break the rules.
Example sentences with lay
Pilar was so tired after getting out of the hospital, her husband had to carry her in and lay her in bed.
If we just lay a couple coats of paint over those marker streaks, the wall will look as good as new.
I know you’ve got bad news, but I can handle it. Lay it on me.
Example sentences with lie
Manoah had a headache and said he was going to lie down.
The truth about the US healthcare industry lies in the capitalist profit motive.
The farms lie in a valley between two mountain ranges.
One hundred years ago, after World War I, Germany’s economy lay in ruins. (past tense)
Example sentences with laying vs. lying
After laying the bags of ice on the table, Ronny rubbed his hands together to warm them.
As she was lying in bed awake last night, Ari thought about a conversation she wanted to have with her youngest daughter.
While lying in a hammock and reading her book, Maritza noticed a neighbor laying his laundry over the fence to dry.
Note that “lieing or laying” is a common search term online, meaning a lot of people are confused about the spelling. We’ll settle it right here: lieing is never a correct spelling, so don’t let it muddy the waters further.
Lay vs. lie in everyday usage
Although grammar rules dictate the usage of these words, in English, the rules were made to be broken. Similar to who vs. whom, you can expect to hear people use lay and lie “incorrectly” in informal speaking and writing. Beyond that, their usage has evolved throughout history, which blurs the lines between them a bit, especially in the phrase lie down or lay down. For example, a well-known but decidedly morbid little bedtime poem opens with the line, “Now I lay me down to sleep.”
So how do you know when it’s okay to break the rules? It depends on your audience. If what you’re working on is a piece of academic writing, such as an essay or thesis, you should stick closely to the grammar rules. But if it’s creative writing, such as a poem or a personal blog post, anything goes. Just write what sounds good to you and will resonate with your audience.
And in everyday speech, you can often use either one without raising any eyebrows. But it may be better to follow the rules in more formal environments.
Now let’s check your progress with a few questions. Choose the right word to fill in the blank. You can find the answers at the end of the article.
Lay or lie
- Exhausted from working in the hot sun, Carlos decided to ____ down on the grass and rest for a moment.
- You can ___ the blame for the messy beaches on tourists who don’t clean up after themselves.
- In a debate, each side will ___ their arguments out to be judged.
Laying or lying
- The lizard was ______ on the rock, enjoying the sun’s heat.
- Why are you ______ that wet towel on his forehead? He doesn’t have a fever.
- The principles ______ beneath the concept of socialism are often contested.
Lay this question to rest
Now that you know the difference between lay and lie, if you see this error pop up in your writing, don’t let it lie. Look at the verb tense and at who or what it’s being done to, and you’ll be able to figure out the correct word choice.
If you’re not sure whether to use lay or lie, QuillBot offers expert AI tools that can show you the best word to write every time, within just seconds. They can also help you with other writing tasks, like restructuring sentences, coming up with ideas, and citing sources. And even if you are sure your grammar is great, it’s always a good idea to double-check for errors.
With QuillBot, your best writing days lie ahead.
Answers: 1. lie 2. lay 3. lay 4. lying 5. laying 6. lying
Do I lay in bed or lie in bed?
Since you’re doing the action to yourself, the correct phrase is lie in bed. If you were placing someone or something else in bed, you would say lay in bed, for example, “I lay the baby in bed for the night.”
What is the difference between lie and lay verb tenses?
Lay is the past tense of lie, but there’s no other overlap between the two words.
What are some common mistakes people make when using lay and lie?
The most common mistake is using lay when talking about putting oneself to bed or a similar action. Another common error is using lied as the past tense of lie, which should be done only when lie means to make a false statement.