Lay or Lie?

 

600+ Confusing English Words Explained

Both of these words refer to the action of putting something down on a surface, or an object/person/animal resting on a surface.

However, lay has a direct object and lie does not.

A direct object is the thing that “receives” the action of the verb.

So when you put your body horizontally on the bed or sofa, you lie down.

When you put a book on the table, you lay the book down. (“book” is the direct object)

You can say that this cat is lying on the piano:

The cat is lying on the piano. (Image source)

The cat is lying on the piano. (Image source)

But if you are putting various photos onto a table, you would be laying the photos on the table (“photos” is the direct object)

Now here’s the confusing part: The past tense of lie is lay!

Present Past Past Participle
Lie Lay Lain
Lay Laid Laid

 

Here are two sentences in the past:

  • With LIE in the past:
    Last night I wasn’t feeling well, so I lay down for an hour.
  • With LAY in the past:
    I laid the book down when the phone rang.

Even native English speakers mix these up; some people say “I’m not feeling well – I need to lay down” when the correct phrase would be “I’m not feeling well – I need to lie down.”

Two forms of the verb LIE

The other confusing part is that the verb LIE has two forms/meanings:

  • Lie – put something on a surface
    Ex) The cat is lying on the piano.
  • Lie – say something false, say something that is not true
    Ex) He said he got a good grade, but he’s lying. He actually failed the test.

These two forms of the verb LIE have different forms in the past and past participle:

Present Past Past Participle
Lie
(something on surface)
Lay Lain
Lie
(say something
that isn’t true)
Lied Lied

 

So in the past, we would say:

  • The cat lay on the piano for three hours last night.
  • David lied about his final test grade last semester.

Clear up your doubts about confusing words… and use English more confidently!

600+ Confusing English Words Explained

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