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Lie or lay? What is the cat doing?

What’s the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’?

There’s an abundance of evidence in every type of writing, from journalism to legal reports, that many English speakers are all at sea when it comes to understanding the differences between lie and lay If you confess to being among their number, it’s not entirely your fault: the situation is bewildering in some respects, all part and parcel of that rich, but often illogical, pattern that constitutes the English language.

Let’s limber up with a mini-quiz to get those brain cells into action and see how much we know (oh goody, a chance to show off!). Can you spot which of the following song snippets are incorrect?

Lyric Artist
Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed Bob Dylan
And the lamb lies down on Broadway Genesis
By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept Psalm 137, as popularized  by Don McLean and others
Come and lay down by my side Kris Kristofferson
I’m laying down the law INXS
Lay all your love on me Abba
Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms Eric Clapton

Kudos to those of you who thought that Dylan, Kristofferson, and Clapton are in the wrong. In fact, Kris Kristofferson gets it right and wrong in the same song (‘Help me make it through the night’), as pointed out in Language Log:

X Come and lay down by my side….       

Lay it soft against my skin….

Whereas Dylan sacrifices linguistic correctitude for the aesthetic assonance (pleasing similarity of sound) shared by ‘lay’ and the first syllable of ‘lady’:

X Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed…

Dazed and confused lexicographer shock!

Of course, it’s totally unfair to single out popular musicians. Perplexity over the correct use of lay and lie is extremely common. I plead guilty to having the occasional wobble myself, though with a related noun rather than the verbs. I used to say ‘I had a nice lay-in last Sunday morning’ and wondered why my colleagues in Oxford Dictionaries used to wince. It should, of course, be ‘…a nice lie-in…’. In fact, ‘lay-in’ is a basketball term, recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning ‘a shot made at the top of a jump, usually by bouncing the ball off the backboard into the basket’, clearly not what I meant (aha – perhaps that’s why my fellow lexicographers were looking askance…).

Laying the confusion to rest…

So now we’ve acknowledged that confusion reigns, let’s do our best to banish it. Here’s a quick rundown of the three verbs and their main meanings:

lay = put someone or something down

  • This is a transitive verb, meaning that it’s followed by a direct object (the person or thing affected by the verb).
  • Here are some examples:

Present tense: I can’t even find someone to lay tiles.

Past simple tense: She laid her hand upon his arm.

Present continuous tense: We’re laying the groundwork for long-term economic growth.

Past perfect tense: The government had laid their cards on the table.

lie (1) = be in a horizontal position on a surface.

  • This is an intransitive verb, so it’s not used with an object. This is the main grammatical difference between lie and lay.
  • Here are some examples:

Present tense:  The wreck lies in 30 metres of water.

Past simple tense: Last night, I lay on my bed and wept.

Present continuous tense: She’s lying down, but feeling OK now.

Past perfect tense: For more than three years her son had lain in a coma.

lie (2) = deliberately say something that’s not true

  • This is also an intransitive verb, but hooray, it has a completely different meaning from the other two and so people are less likely to use it incorrectly.
  • Here are some examples:

Present tense:  He lies to everyone in his life, including himself.

Past simple tense: I lied about my age to get the job.

Present continuous tense: You say you like me, but I know you’re lying.

Past perfect tense:  They knew that he had lied at the trial.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that one immediate source of confusion is that lay can be both the infinitive and present tense of the transitive verb lay, meaning ‘put someone/something down’ or the past tense of the intransitive verb lie, meaning ‘be in a horizontal position on a surface’. The evidence on the Oxford English Corpus shows that people often mistakenly use lay when they should be using lie:

X  I want to lay down, it’ll be more comfortable.

I want to lie down….                                                               [infinitive of lie (1)]

X  The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun.

√  The tortoise lies on its back…                                                [present of lie (1)]

Other very common errors crop up with participles, past tenses, and the passive voice:

Her brother’s illness forced her to explore feelings that had lied dormant for some time.

  …. that had lain dormant…                                   [past perfect of lie (1)]

I laid down on my bed and went to sleep.

√  I lay down on my bed…                                         [simple past of lie (1)]

She’s laying flat on her back, out for the count.

  She’s lying flat on her back…                               [present continuous of lie (1)]

When she died, she was lain in an ornate wooden coffin.

…she was laid in an ornate wooden coffin.       [passive of lay]

But enough of confusion and mistakes! Here’s a handy table, setting out the meanings, grammar, and all the forms of the three verbs:

Infinitive Main meaning Transitivity Present tense,3rd person singular Present participle and verbal noun Simple past tense Past participle
lay put something down transitive he, she, or it lays laying laid laid
lie (1) be in a horizontal position intransitive he, she, or it lies lying lay lain
lie (2) make a false statement intransitive he, she, or it lies lying lied lied

If you need any extra help, try saying the following to yourself – the similarity of sounds should act as a handy reminder of which verb to use:

  • place the book down = lay
  • recline on the bed = lie

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