Commonly Confused Word Pairs: Lie/lay

September 7, 2006: Issue 155

At considerable risk to our own job security, we’re going to try to explain an issue that has long confounded writers and editors: “lie” versus “lay.”

To get this one right, you need to follow two simple steps:

1. Learn the difference between “lie” and “lay” in the present tense.

“Lie” means “to rest” or “to recline.” It is an intransitive verb, which means it never takes a direct object.
The book is lying on the desk.
I need to lie down for a few minutes.
Weight the corners so the paper lies flat.

“Lay” means “to put” or “to place.” It’s a transitive verb, which means it needs a direct object.
Lay the book on the desk, please. (object: book)
She’s laying four aces on the table. (object: aces)
We need someplace to lay the blame. (object: blame)

2. Memorize these six syllables: lie-lay-lain, lay-laid-laid.

The past tense of “lie” is “lay.”
The book lay on the desk all day yesterday.

The past participle of “lie” is “lain.”
It has lain there for weeks.

See where the confusion starts? There’s overlap between the present and past tenses of these two distinct words.

The past tense of “lay” is “laid.”
I laid the book on the table this morning.

The past participle of “lay” is also “laid.”
I’ve laid it there every morning this week.

We hope this helps. And if you’re still confused, remember: You’re keeping a copy editor employed.

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