Grammar 101: ‘Lay’ or ‘lie’?

In my teaching, I often find students confusing the two words ‘lay’ and ‘lie’.

It seems to me, that as we’ve forgotten the difference between these two words, we use the one that sounds more polite (and doesn’t imply that someone is telling an untruth).

Hence, I regularly read manuscripts that read:

‘The doctor asked the patient to lay down on the examination table’

or

‘She was laying on the floor with her head in her hands when her mother found her.’

These are both incorrect uses of the word ‘lay’.

Now, I need to use some jargon here, but it’s not too complicated, I promise.

Firstly, the word lay is what we call a transitive verb. This means it ‘transfers’ the action to another person or thing.

So, you ‘lay a table‘ or ‘lay out a plan‘ or ‘lay a wreath‘.

For the grammar nerds among you, that means laytakes a direct object, as indicated above in bold.

In contrast, ‘lie’ is an intransitive verb. This means that the action is not transferred to someone or something else.

So, you ‘lie on the floor’ or ‘were lying in bed when you got the call’.

A simple way to remember which word to use, is to ask are they reclining, or are they putting something down? Consider:

Peter was laying/lying in bed when his father came to visit.

Was Peter putting something down? No, he was reclining in bed, so we use the verb ‘lie’:

Peter was lying in bed when his father came to visit.

Contrast this with the following:

Peter was laying/lying his clothes out on the bed when his father came to visit.

Was Peter putting something down? Yes, he was placing his clothes on the bed, so we use the verb ‘lay’:

Peter was laying his clothes out on the bed when his father came to visit.

So, there you have it.

Well, not quite. You see, the past tense of these two verbs complicate things a little further, because (deep breath, dear reader) the past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’. English is a wonderful language, isn’t it?

So, if you are talking about a time in the past when you were reclining in bed, you’d say:

I lay in bed last night wondering if I’d ever understand the difference between the intransitive verb ‘lie’ and the transitive verb ‘lay’.

If you’ve stopped screaming and are still reading, I suspect you might like to take a note of these forms:

TRANSITIVE VERB: LIE (must take an object)

Present simple I lay out the facts
Past simple I laid out the facts
Future simple I will lay out the facts
Present continuous I am laying out the facts
Past continuous I was laying out the facts
Future continuous I will be laying out the facts
Present perfect I have laid out the facts
Past perfect I had laid out the facts
Future perfect I will have laid out the facts
Present perfect continuous I have been laying out the facts
Past perfect continuous I had been laying out the facts
Future perfect continuous I will have been laying out the facts

 

INTRANSITIVE VERB: LIE (doesn’t take an object)

Present simple I lie in bed
Past simple I lay in bed
Future simple I will lie in bed
Present continuous I am lying in bed
Past continuous I was lying in bed
Future continuous I will be lying in bed
Present perfect I have lain in bed
Past perfect I had lain in bed
Future perfect I will have lain in bed
Present perfect continuous I have been lying in bed
Past perfect continuous I had been lying in bed
Future perfect continuous I will have been lying in bed

That’s more than you bargained for, I’m sure, but if you print out this list, you’ll never go wrong.

Good luck!

M

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