Lie and lay are words that are often misused in speech and in writing. I have many writer friends who have their characters do anything except lie down just to avoid grammar mistakes. But knowing when to use lay and lie really isn’t that complicated. Want to get it right once and for all? Read on!
To begin with, lie refers to something someone is doing (like lying down), and lay refers to something you DO to something else (lay the book down). The confusion arises because the past tense of lie is the same as the present tense of lay. Also, the way most people speak, the past tense of lie (which is lay) often sounds like it has a “d” on the end of it when it really doesn’t.
- Today I lie down.
- Go lie down!
- He/she is lying in bed right now.
- They are lying in the sun.
- Yesterday I/he/she/they lay down. (Saying this fast makes it sound like “laid down,” which is NOT correct.)
- Today I/they lay the book down.
- Please lay the book on the table.
- He/she is laying the the baby in the crib.
- They are laying the bottles on their sides to fit more in the box.
- Yesterday I/he/she/they laid the book down.
- I/He/She/They laid the book on the table before I/he/she/they went out to play.
Use in Novel Writing
Present tense writing:
- “I won’t do it,” I say. I lay the book on the table.
- “I won’t do it,” he/she says. He/She lays the book on the table.
- “We won’t do it,” they say. They lay the book on the table.
Note that in the above sentence I would actually omit the “I say/she says/they say” if I were really writing a novel because it’s unnecessary.
Past tense writing (most novels are written in past tense):
- “I won’t do it,” I/she/he said. I/she/he laid the book on the table.
- “We won’t do it,” they said. They laid the book on the table.
Note that in this sentence I would actually omit the “I said” if I were really writing a novel because it’s unnecessary.
Yes, there are more forms of the verbs, but I’m only focusing on these two, which are the ones people most confuse. Once you know the rules, it’s rather simple to expand to the rest of the forms, especially if you compare “lie” and “lay” to “sit” and “set, which most people have far less trouble with.
Compare with Sit and Set
The use of “lie” doesn’t have a direct object. Notice how you can exchange “lie” for “sit” in these sentences.
Present lie examples:
- Go lie down! Go sit down!
- I am lying in bed right now. I am sitting in bed right now.
- After dinner, he’ll lie down for a nap. After dinner, he’ll sit down for a nap.
- The baby lies in his crib and cries. The baby sits in his crib and cries.
- They lie in the sun to get a tan. They sit in the sun to get a tan.
Past tense lie examples:
You can also use the sit and set test for past tense.
- I lay in bed all day. I sat in bed all day.
- Yesterday, he lay under the tree for a nap. Yesterday, he lay under the tree for a nap.
- The baby lay in his crib and cried. The baby lay in his crib and cried.
- They lay in the sun to get a tan. They lay in the sun to get a tan.
Because there is no direct object, (not even an implied direct object) in the above examples, you would never say “Go set down!” or “He’ll set down for a nap.” Likewise, you should never use “lay” in any of these or similar sentences. So basically, if you can use “sit” or “sits” in a sentence, you should use a form of “lie.”
Present tense lay examples:
By contrast, lay is a is a verb that can only be used with a direct object. To use it you must lay SOMETHING somewhere.
- I lay the baby in his cradle. I set the baby in his cradle.
- She lays the rocks carefully in the flowerbed. She sets the rocks carefully in the flowerbed.
- I am laying the cement bags in the driveway. I am setting the cement bags in the driveway.
- They lay the piles of clothes on the curb. They set the piles of clothes on the curb.
Past tense lay examples:
Note that the past of set is also set.
- I laid the baby in his cradle. I set the baby in his cradle.
- She laid the rocks carefully in the flowerbed. She sets the rocks carefully in the flowerbed.
- I laid the cement bags in the driveway. I set the cement bags in the driveway.
- They laid the piles of clothes on the curb. They set the piles of clothes on the curb.
With a direct object, you always use a form of lay in the sentence. If you can use “set” or “sets” in the sentence, then use a form of “lay.
Quick Reference Form
Lie = Sit (no direct object)
Present = I lie/sit down to rest. Go lie down! She lies/sits down to rest.
Future = I will lie/sit down to rest. I’m going to lie/sit down.
Past = Yesterday I lay/sat down to rest.
Ing = She was lying/sitting on the bed when he walked in.
Set = Lay (requires direct object or implied direct object—below the direct object is in capitals)
Present = I lay/set the PLATES on the table. She lays/sets the PLATES on the table. Please lay/set the table. (Implied direct object of some kind of dishes.)
Future = I will lay/set the PLATES on the table.
Past = Yesterday I laid/set the PLATES on the table.
Chicken Exception for Set
Yes, chickens do “set on eggs,” but it really isn’t even the same verb. Most people would sit on eggs because there is no direct object. Not even chickens would lay on eggs in the present tense, though they would definitely lay eggs (direct object).
Hope this helps you know when to use lay and lie. Oh, and if you like this, please leave me a comment! For more lay/lie examples and an in-depth explanation, see Book Cave’s post.
4 Responses to “Know When to Use Lay and Lie with Easy Examples”
I am retired, widowed, and live alone – not even a dog any more. I love your books because they’re clean and porn free, and because even in your series, your characters remain the same, but they develop and grow. Reading is my reward between tasks, and my connection to emotions. Without them I think I would be lonely. I’ve read your series ‘Lies’, and I’m currently on book 4 of Autumn’s series. Thank you, thank you.
Teyla Rachel Branton
Hi John! I so much appreciate your comments. I’ve been struggling after my move, and it’s good to now that what I do makes a difference. I very much appreciate readers like you who support good literature. Sometimes having characters as friends is a good thing. They keep me sane. Thank you!
I learned it by memorizing this little verse:
“To lay or to set is to place or to put
To lie or to sit is to rest or recline
I think I learned it in high school.
Teyla Rachel Branton
Nice. I like it!