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The Case of Lay vs. Lie

Written by tutor Peter F.

Feeling tired? Think you may want to lie down? Or, perhaps, you would like to lay your head against a pillow and take a rest? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” you may find yourself dreaming about the right ways and times to use each of these “l-” words. Well, no need to ponder any longer! You will find that the answer lies right before your eyes!

Lay

By definition, the verb, “to lay,” means, to put down. Now, this is not a put-down—as in saying something to hurt somebody’s feelings. Rather, “to lay something down” means “to place it in a certain spot.” Therefore, if somebody were instructing you to place a flowerpot in a specific area of a garden, they would say, “Please lay it down over here.”

Take a gander at these song lyrics from Bob Dylan’s tune, “Lay Lady Lay”:
Lay lady lay,
Lay across my big brass bed.

Here, the man is telling the woman to lay her body down. Because the body is the object doing the movement and positioning itself in a specific location (the bed), the verb “to lay” takes the throne.

In fact, between lie and lay, lay typically contains more usages in the English language. For example, you may have heard (or yourself stated) the phrase, “Lay it on me!” Whether the “laying” takes the form of information, food, or a task to be completed, “lay” must be used in this context.

Lie

I am not lying when I tell you that lie is less commonly used than lay when writing or speaking. We all know that the noun infinitive of lie means, “an untruth,” while the verb infinitive thereof means, “to not tell the truth, and give false information.” But as an alternative to the verb, to lay, by definition, to lie means, “to collapse; to recline; to stretch out;” basically, anything involving resting your body and easing your mind.

You may have told your dog (presuming you own one) to, “go lie down.” Here, you are instructing your pet to move his/her body downward in a sleeping position, changing its physical stance.

In essence, “lying down” refers to actions of sorts being taken by living beings, whereas “laying down” refers to the positioning or placement of an object in relationship to another object or location.

The “Will” To Present and Future Tense: Lies

When trying to figure out which “l-“ word to use when writing or speaking in the present tense, you will have to add an “s” at the end, just as you do with most verbs in this situation.

Therefore, lie becomes lies. Exhibit A: “He lies down every afternoon at 3:00.”
And in future tense: “He will lie down this afternoon at 3:00.”
It should be duly noted that both lays and will lay are grammatically incorrect.

Unlike lie, lay cannot take the present- or future tense form.

Past Tense: Laid vs. Lay vs. Lie(d)

As a verb, laid exemplifies the past tense of lay.

Case-in-point, “This matter has been laid to rest.” Here, laid means “done away with; finished; put away; thrown away.”

However, it is grammatically incorrect to recite lied as the past tense of the verb, to lie. I would have lied if I had told you the opposite (which, by the way, is an example of the correct usage of lied—as the past tense of the verb, to lie—as in “to not tell the truth”).

Let’s say you are in a doctor’s office describing what you were doing prior to experiencing the series of negative physical effects that brought you into that very location. If you tell your physician, “I lied down on the couch, at which point my head started hurting”, the doctor may think you were betraying the couch’s trust. Instead, you want to correctly state, “I lay down on the couch.”

Even though the described circumstance involves the present tense usage of lie—as in “to lie down”—once the present becomes the past, lie turns into lay.

Lay vs Lie Practice Quiz

Try your hand at mastering the multiple usages of lay, lie, and their constituents by answering the following multiple-choice questions. If you wish to take this test lying down, you are more than welcome. When finished, please lay your pencil beside your paper to let me know you are done. Good luck; and when the test is complete, please feel free to lie down and get some well-deserved rest.

Please ______ the clothes down over here once they are neatly folded.

A. lie
B. lay
The correct answer here would be B.

Here, "lay" is used to indicate the placement of the clothes.

I choose not to ________ down until I am fully ready to go to bed.

A. lie
B. lay
The correct answer here would be A.

Here, "lie" is used to indicate the action of putting oneself in a horizontal position to rest.

She _______ her back against the wall.

A. lay
B. lied
C. laid
The correct answer here would be A.

Here, "lay" is used due to the special case of the past tense of "lie," which is never "lied," but "lay."

Once this topic is _________ to rest, we can all party hearty!

A. lied
B. laid
The correct answer here would be B.

Their dog ______ around all day, doing nothing.

A. lays
B. lies
The correct answer here would be B.

Here, "lies" is used to indicate the action of reclining, or resting.

The dead always will _______ perfectly still.

A. lie
B. lay
The correct answer here would be B.

Here, "lay" is used because the dead are objects; therefore they cannot recline or rest, they are placed by others.

Choose the answer that best fixes the sentence. If the sentence is already correct, choose "Correct as is."

I lied down on my side.

A. I lay down on my side.
B. I laid down on my side.
The correct answer here would be A.

This is another special case of the past tense of "lie," which is "lay."

Shall we lie the artwork on the table?

A. Correct as is.
B. Shall we lay the artwork on the table?
The correct answer here would be B.

We need to use "lay" here as the sentence is referring to a physical placement of an object by a person.

When will this be lied to rest?

A. When will this be laid to rest?
B. When will this be lay to rest?
The correct answer here would be A.

The patient will lay down on the cart in a moment.

A. The patient will lie down on the cart in a moment.
B. Correct as is.
The correct answer here would be A.

We use "lie" here, because the patient will be taking the action of putting him/herself into a resting position.

Works Cited

Dylan, Bob. "Lay Lady Lay." Nashville Skyline. Nashville, TN: Columbia Records, 1969.

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