Lie, Lay, and Snobbery

The verbs lie and lay are often confused, and if you can learn to use them correctly once and for all, you’ll be part of a small, elite minority. It may well be that these verbs are so often confused, even by educated speakers, that maintaining the difference doesn’t make sense. But if you want to get them straight, you first need to learn a couple of grammatical terms. Lie is an intransitive verb, meaning it never takes an object. Lay is a transitive verb, meaning it always takes an object. I lie down for a nap (no object) I lay the book down on the table (Book is the object of lay). When you lay, you’re inevitably laying something. Here’s a source of much of the confusion: The past tense of lie is lay. Yesterday I lay down for a nap.


Look at the following:


Present         Past    Past Participle        Present Participle

lie                   lay                       lain                           lying

lay                  laid                     laid                           laying


Sentences using lie:

  1. Every day I lie down for a nap.
  2. Yesterday I lay down for a nap.
  3. I have lain on the couch all morning.
  4. I was lying on the beach.

Note that these sentences have no objects.

Sentences using lay:

  1. Every day I lay the newspaper on the table.
  2. Yesterday I laid the newspaper on the table.
  3. I have laid the newspaper on the table every day for a year.
  4. Where have you been laying the newspaper?

Note that in each of these sentences, the object is newspaper.

Again, if you confuse these verbs, you have a lot of company. Some who never confuse them will look down on you, but they would probably look down on you for many other reasons anyway. Such linguistic snobbery is dealt with nicely by the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his essay “Grammar Puss,” which I highly recommend:


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