Usage Thursday: Lay Vs. Lie

Lay versus lie remains one of the peskiest usage questions facing writers, so pesky that the SAT doesn’t even test on it! I know the rule, and still I do a double take every time I come across it in my own or others’ writing. I can deal with present and past tense, but if we’re dealing with past participle, I tend to opt for a rewrite.

So here it is, your handy-dandy guide to lay versus lie:

Simply put, you need to lay something.

Now, if that sounds PG-13-rated, what better way to help you remember the difference!

Here’s the official grammatical explanation:

Lay means “to put or set down.” It is a transitive verb, meaning that it requires a direct object:

Time is up. Lay your pencils down.

Lie, on the other hand, means “to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position.” It is an intransitive verb, meaning that it doesn’t require a direct object:

Jim lies down for a nap every afternoon.

The present participle forms of lay and lie are easily extrapolated from the present tense:

Jim is laying his backpack on the counter while he looks for an after-school snack.
Derrick is lying on the couch to relax.

Things get complicated, however, in the past tense.

The past tense of lay is laid:

Jim laid his books on his desk.

Simple enough. But the past tense of lie is lay:

Derrick finally lay down at eleven last night.

Finally, the past participle of lay is also laid:

Jim has laid his paper that is due tomorrow on his desk so he won’t forget it.

But the past participle of lie is lain:

Derrick has lain in bed for an hour without falling asleep.

This simple chart summarizes the various forms of “lay” and “lie”:

Present Tense    Present Participle    Past Tense    Past Participle
lay                         laying                         laid                 laid
lie                          lying                           lay                   lain

The key here is to figure out what tense is being used, then whether something is being laid.

Tomorrow: Mots Justes joins Twitter!


Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Fogarty, Mignon, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

“lay.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 5 March 2009 <>

“lie.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 5 March 2009 <>

Caught in the ’Net

The argument has been made, convincingly, that fretting about the current economic situation only perpetuates the problem. Yet, the fretting continues:

The Week wonders whether only the rich can actually afford to write.

Reader’s Digest repurposes outsourced freelance work.

Recession depression hits freelance writers especially hard.

But Kindle and digital readers like it could be the salvation for writers and writing.

Meanwhile, authors consider whether writing is “a joy or a chore.”


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