“Lie” vs. “Lay”

The difference between the verbs lie and lay can be very confusing, so it’s worth taking a look at the difference periodically to make sure you are using them correctly.

Of course, both words have multiple meanings, but the meaning that creates confusion is the “reclining / positioned flat” meaning.

The technical difference between the two is that the infinitive to lay is transitive, and so requires an object, while the infinitive to lie is intransitive, and does not take an object.

In PRESENT TENSE, you lay something down, while you or an object simply lie down.


“Hang on a sec while I lay my iPad here on the table, then I can come lie down on the couch and watch Walking Dead with you.”

Now the iPad and the other technical gadgets lie lonesome on the table while you lie on the couch, and lay your hand on the remote control in case the show gets too scary and you need to pause it.

PAST TENSE makes it more complicated. In past tense, lay becomes laid, while lie becomes lay (!!!)

So, in past tense, the choice is between laid (past tense of to lay) and lay (past tense of to lie).


“When she was about to turn on Walking Dead, I laid my iPad on the table and lay down on the couch to watch the show.”

Then the iPad and the other gadgets lay on the table while I laid my hand on the remote…

PERFECT TENSE sounds awkward with these verbs, regardless: “The iPad and the other gadgets have laid on the table for hours while I have lain on the couch watching Walking Dead.”

You can see confusion come up with these verbs all the time in literature and popular media:

The popular childhood prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep…” is technically correct (while you can lay yourself down, you can’t lay down in present tense).

Pop songs almost always get it wrong: “Lay Down Sally” (Eric Clapton) should be “Lie Down Sally” (unless he’s carrying her to  bed); “It’s Ecstasy when You Lay Down Next to Me” (Barry White) should be “It’s Ecstasy When You Lie Down Next to Me”, and so on. But Information Society (NERDS!) got it right with “Lay All Your Love on Me”.

The best way to remember it is to think for a second about all the ways lay is used in regular speech — “lay a bet”, “lay it on me”, “lay down the law”, “lay it on thick” — there’s always an object for the verb.

The phrases to try to eliminate from your speech and writing: “I’m gonna go lay down for a while” or “I’m gonna go lay out in the sun” (use “lie” instead, plus some sunscreen in the latter case).

The difference between lay and lie is tested on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

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