The Right Way to Use Lay vs. Lie

How can three little letters cause so much confusion?!

Sometimes, at the end of a long work week, all you want to do is just lie down. Or is it…lay down? Which of these three-letter verbs means to crash in a reclining position?

Before you ponder this dilemma, you might assume that when it comes to words, the more letters it has, the more confusing it can be. But you’d be underestimating the confusion that these two three-letter words can justifiably cause! And that’s not all—it turns out that the most complicated word in the English language also has three letters. But don’t worry—we’re here to break down the difference between lay vs. lie once and for all.

What does “lie” mean?

We’re not going to focus on the definition involving not telling the truth, since you won’t see people mixing that up with “lay”! “Lie” also means “assume a horizontal position.” You can “lie” down and you can “lie” on a futon. “Lie” can also refer to something that’s already in a horizontal position (rather than assuming one). This can refer to both humans and inanimate objects, as in, “Please get the remote that’s lying on the ottoman.” Bottom line: When you say that you’re going to “lay” down because you’re tired, that’s actually one of the things you had no idea you’ve been saying wrong.

What does “lay” mean?

The major confusion with “lay” vs. “lie,” in addition to their similar spellings and sounds, is that they also both refer to something being in a horizontal position. But the big difference is that while “lie” doesn’t need an object, “lay” does. “Lay” means to put something into such a position. You can’t just “lay” down; you need to lay something down. You’d use it to say, “The painting isn’t dry yet; please lay it down carefully.”

Confusingly enough, this is (correctly) the version you’ll find in the old rhyme “Now I lay me down to sleep,” even though it is talking about reclining sleepily. Since the rhymer is laying him- or herself down (a somewhat old-fashioned way of phrasing), the word “me” is the object of the sentence. If it was just “Now I lay down to sleep,” this would be incorrect.

Lay vs. lie: Past tenses

When you hear their different definitions, lay vs. lie seems easy enough to understand, even if remembering which is which is still a little confusing. But then you consider the past tenses of each verb, and lay vs. lie becomes even more complicated, almost comically so. Because the past tense of “lie” is…”lay”! So while you wouldn’t say “I need to lay down right now because I’m not feeling well,” you would say “I lay down yesterday because I wasn’t feeling well.” Yikes! You can see why this distinction makes our list of the most confusing rules in the grammar world.

The past tense of “lay,” meanwhile, is not also “lay” (thankfully). It’s “laid.” Just like the present tense version, “laid” needs an object, as in, “She gently laid the sleeping baby into the crib.”

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.