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Language Arts

Lay vs Lie

Ever get confused between "lay" vs. "lie"? This article defines "lay" and "lie," assists with conjugation, and shows how to distinguish whether to use "lie" or"lay" in a sentence. Keep reading for more on "lie" vs "lay."

I understand now what happened: Hillary lays the tiara on the table and forgets about it when she goes to lie down. She is so embarrassed by leaving it unguarded, that she then tells a lie in an attempt to cover her tracks. There are several words lie and lay, and each one has multiple meanings, but in this article we’ll focus only on the ones that are most confusing - the two distinct intransitive verbs (taking no object) that are both written lie, and the transitive verb (taking an object) lay.

Spelling and Meaning

One intransitive verb lie comes into English through Middle English from the Old English word licgan, meaning “to lie” and is related to the Latin word for bed, lectus. The other intransitive verb lie also comes into English through Middle and Old English, and it’s related to the Old High German word liogan, meaning “to lie.” 

One of the chief meanings of the verb lie derived from licgan has to do with putting oneself in or remain resting in a horizontal position, as one does when one goes to bed. One of the chief meanings of the verb lie related to liogan has to do with purposefully presenting false information with intent to deceive. So far, we can see that though they are spelled identically, the meanings of the two words spelled lie are distinct enough that they should be easy to distinguish both in speech and in writing.

Now let’s consider the transitive verb lay. Lay comes into English through Middle English from the Old English word lecgan which is related to the Old English word licgan, meaning “to lie.” One of the chief meanings of lay has to do with placing into position for rest or for sleep.

Now we can see that  the intransitive verb lie from licgan and the transitive verb lay from licgan are related in a way that’s similar to the intransitive verb sit and the transitive verb set. For both lie and sit, one acts on oneself to place one’s body in a specified position. For both lay and set, one acts on something else - in the case of set, an object; in the case of lay, an object or a person - putting it into a resting situation.

So now we have clearly identified one type of confusion between lie and lay.


The other confusion with lie and lay comes with the different forms of the verbs. Lets see how the principle parts of each verb work.

Lie from licgan:

Present: lie

Past: lay

Past Participle: lain

Lie related to liogan

Present: lie

Past: lied

Past Participle: lied

Lay from licgan:

Present: lay

Past: laid

Past Participle: laid

And now we can see two more possible points of confusion:

1) Because the two verbs lie have different conjugations, it is possible that someone might mistakenly choose the form of the wrong lie.

2) Because the present indicative form lay meaning “put something to rest” is the past form of lie meaning “put oneself to rest,” one cannot immediately tell whether the form lay is the present form of one verb or the past form of another verb, and with the similarity in meaning, this is even more confusing than it would be otherwise.

Distinguishing Lie, Lie, and Lay

The multiple overlaps between and among these verbs can make them particularly difficult to distinguish. Here are a couple of things you can do to help keep them sraight.

1) Connect the word pair lie and lay with the word pair sit and set to help keep straight which is intransitive and which is transitive. One way to do this is to remember that the two words that contain the letter i -  lie and sit - go together and are intransitive, which starts with an i.

2) To distinguish the conjugations of lie and lie, help remember that lie (telling a falsehood) is so damaging because people who appear to be regular good guys do it, and connect this with the fact that lie is a regular verb, with the past tense and past participle formed by adding - ed. Also, the two related words lie and lay are the ones with overlapping conjugations.

3) As for remembering lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid, this is a case in which memorizing may serve you well, as developing a mnemonic to cover all the parts would probably be too complicated to be useful.