This article will explain the difference between the verbs to lie and to lay. The conjugation of these verbs is so confusing that native English speakers (myself included) regularly make mistakes with their use!
#1 – The Transitive Verb ‘Lay’
Present/Past Tense/Past Participle = lay/laid/laid + [object] + on [location]
Definition: to put something down, often gently, into a position (usually a horizontal position)
Example: She laid the baby on the bed. / She laid her hands on the table.
Lay is a transitive verb. This means the verb can take an object; e.g. you can lay something. You can lay flowers on something. You can lay a pillow on a bed. Transitive verbs (verbs that take a direct object) are quite common. They include eat (what is the object you eat? = sandwich), see (see what? = a movie), read (read what? = a book), etc. You eat a sandwich; you see a movie; you read a book; and you lay an object (on something).
Here are three examples. Notice that in each example, there is an object that is laid and there is the preposition ‘on‘ (or onto) followed by a location.
- Present tense: She lays a mat on the floor before she does yoga.
- Past Simple: We laid new sheets on the bed this morning.
- Past Participle: The server has already laid the dishes and cutlery onto the table.
Main point: The verb ‘lay’ always has an object. In other words: you always lay something.
#2 – The Intransitive Verb ‘Lie’
Present/Past Tense/Past Participle = lie/lay/lain
Definition: to be in a horizontal resting position
Examples: I lie in bed for a while before I fall asleep. / The old horse lay in the grass yesterday.
Lie is an intransitive verb. This means the verb cannot take an object; you cannot lie something. People lie (in bed). Shadows lie (on the ground). We use this verb when we talk about something being in a resting position. The meaning is complete without an object. There are many examples of intransitive verbs, e.g. The man died. The airplane arrived. Intransitive verbs, such as lie, die, arrive, cannot take an object. You cannot die something, you cannot arrive something, and you cannot lie something.
The confusing part: the past tense of lie is lay! Crazy, isn’t it? This is one reason why these two verbs are confused so much (even for native speakers).
Let me give some examples again.
- Present tense: My father lies on the couch after dinner.
- Past Simple: After he lay down, the phone rang.
- Past Participle: John had lain in the sun all day, so his skin was burnt.
Notice: because the verb ‘lie’ is intransitive, there are no objects.
Summary Table: Lay vs Lie
|to lay (something)||lay||laid||laid|
Looking at the above table, mark of the below sentences are correct or incorrect.
Lay vs. Lie Exercise #1: Correct or Incorrect?
1. The baby is lying down. Show Answer
The sentence is correct This is the intransitive verb ‘lie’ in the Present (Continuous) tense. The verb ‘lie’ in the ~ing form is lying.
2. I laid the paper on his desk last night. Show Answer
The sentence is correct. There is an object here (the paper), so we are using the transitive verb ‘lay’. This is the past tense form: laid.
3. She laid down on her back so the doctor could examine her. Show Answer
The sentence is incorrect. This is the intransitive verb ‘lie’. The past tense is lay. The answer should be “She lay down on her back…”
Lay vs. Lie Exercise #2: Enter the Correct Word
- If you’re tired of standing, then you should down.
- If you a finger on my wife, I’ll hurt you!
- My son always on his back when he sleeps.
- Joan has been on the beach since noon.
- The waiter the dishes on the table, and then we ate.
- The bed was used. This means that other people had in it before we bought it.
I hope this was helpful. Knowing the difference between transitive verbs (e.g. lay) and intransitive verbs (e.g. lie) can really help you understand the differences among English verbs.
Remember, I even make mistakes with this (especially with the past tense of lie). Keep studying, practicing, and don’t give up!
– Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com