Updated April 2023
Figuring out whether you should use lie or lay can give you a headache. At Writer’s Relief, you might think we’re only interested in researching the best markets for your writing and boosting your odds of getting published, but our grammar experts know lie and lay are difficult verbs! Do you need to lie down? Lay down? Forget that! Wake up, read the examples below, and you’ll know when to use lie or lay.
Tips For Using Lie And Lay Correctly
Here’s a little exercise:
One of these is correct. Can you tell which one?
A) We lie the silverware on the table.
B) We lay the silverware on the table.
Do you know which is correct in this example?
A) I have lied to you before.
B) I have laid to you before.
And, what about this one?
A) She is lying on the floor.
B) She is laying on the floor.
Not sure? Let us help you solve the mystery behind the lie and lay rules! Let’s start with the definitions of lie and lay.
Definition of Lie #1: to say something untrue in order to benefit; to fib. A regular verb.
The present tense is conjugated with lie/lies/lying, depending on the subject.
The past tense is simply conjugated with lied.
This is the version of lie you use when you tried to cut your own bangs: you lied and said that it had been done instead by a rogue hairstylist. You lie about the bad haircut, you lied about the bad haircut, and you’re still lying about the bad haircut even as we speak. But really, you should tell the truth. After all, hair grows back.
However, now we come to another definition (thanks, English).
Definition of Lie #2: to recline, or to be in a horizontal position; to rest oneself. An irregular verb. Note: if you (or some other person) are resting, then you use this form, Lie #2.
The present tense is conjugated the same as Lie #1.
The past tense is conjugated with lay or have/had lain, depending on the subject.
This definition applies when you’re talking about a person reclining in a horizontal position. For instance, after looking in the mirror and seeing what your hair looks like after your bangs debacle, you probably need to lie down right now. So far, so good.
But the past tense of this definition is what gives us trouble, since it looks identical to the present tense of the word lay.
Definition of Lay: to place, which is always followed by an object; to place or put something. An irregular verb. Note: if you put something down, the object is what completes the meaning of this form of the word lay.
**Very Handy Tip: If you can replace the word in question with “put,” then lay is the correct word to use.
Continuing with our previous example, after you had done your best to give yourself hair like Zooey Deschanel, you would lay (or put) down the scissors and stare at the mirror in horror. The past tense, again, is tricky, and often the one that gets overused; in these instances, lay would become laid: I laid the scissors down and let out a bloodcurdling scream.
Ready for a few more headache-inducing caveats? We thought you might be. When using lie and lay in their past-participle form, they evolve even further! (“Past participle?” you ask, tearing your eyes away from the vision in the mirror. We hear you.) This is when you throw in a “helping” word, like “had.” In these instances, lie becomes lain…and lay once again becomes laid. Sentences using these rules would look like this:
I had lain there for three hours before I decided to simply shave the rest of my head.
Sabastian, my hairstylist, had laid down the law the last time I cut my own hair. He would not be pleased to see me.
Think you have it figured out? If you need a quick and easy reminder, remember this: People lie down, but chickens lay eggs. And no one should cut their own bangs.
Let’s go back to the quiz at the beginning of this article. The answers are: B, A, and A. Revisit these rules a few times, and soon enough, you will realize there is no mystery at all.
Want more articles like this one about grammar rules and confusing words like lie or lay? Check out our free newsletter Submit Write Now! delivered right to your e-mail inbox. In it you’ll find useful articles about using proper grammar and other writing-related issues, including this article on the Top 20 Misused (and Mistreated) Words. And here are more grammar tips and advice:
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