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Common Errors in Spoken English: Lay Lie Difference

Lay–Lie Difference

by Owen Fourie

How not to lie when you use lie, lay, lain, laid, laying, and lying

A tricky word family

If there is the possibility that a student might have a fever, we use a thermometer to find out. How someone uses lay and lie is a grammatical thermometer indicating the state of that person’s grammatical health.

It would be nice not to fuss about these things, but as long as there is a standard to measure right and wrong usage, your speaking and writing will be measured by that standard, so why not get it right?

Wrong usage of lie and lay is often heard in speech, so we’ll consider this in the Speaking English category, but it does occur in writing too.

In the following sentences, see if you can choose the correct word and check below to see if you have chosen correctly:

  1. I am so sleepy; I need to lay/lie on the couch now.
  2. I was so sleepy yesterday that I laid/lay there for a long time.
  3. I have laid/lain here for the past three days.
  4. I am laying/lying on the couch now.
  5. I must lie/ lay my tools on the workbench now.
  6. I lay/ laid the hammer on the workbench yesterday.
  7. I have lain/laid the tape measure on the workbench.
  8. I am lying/ laying a chisel there too.

A trick that will help you to know if you are using the right word

  • Ask yourself this question: Does this word describe the subject putting something somewhere, or is it describing the subject at rest or intending to rest somewhere?
  • What you need to understand is that the word lay is active. When you use it, it needs to affect something. It needs a direct object;
  • The word lie is restful, keeping to itself and not doing anything to anybody. It does not take a direct object;
  • Remember that the quiet lying-down words are lie, lay, lain, and lying;
  • Remember that the active putting-down-something words are lay, laid, laid, laying.

The correct choices for the sentences above

  1. I am so sleepy; I need to lie on the couch now.
  2. I was so sleepy yesterday that I lay there for a long time.
  3. I have lain here for the past three days.
  4. I am lying on the couch now.
  5. I must lay my tools on the workbench now.
  6. I laid the hammer on the workbench yesterday.
  7. I have laid the tape measure on the workbench.
  8. I am laying a chisel there too.

Think about this

It is not correct to say to someone, “Go and lay down!”

  • Lay is active. It requires a direct object;
  • Whoever is being told to do this, would be correct to ask, “Lay down what?”
  • The correct command is “Go and lie down!” Lie is restful. It does not require a direct object.

Confusion happens because there is a restful lay and an active lay:

  • The restful lay is the past tense of lie;
  • The active lay is the present tense of the active lay.

Notice too that there are two uses of laid:

  • It is the past tense of the active lay;
  • It is also the past participle of the active lay.

Now, about those lies I have been telling you …

I lie to you regularly.

I lied to you yesterday.

I have lied to you every day this week.

I am lying to you at this very moment.

Actually, I have told you the truth about the lay–lie difference.

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How familiar are you with the lay–lie problem? Are there other points like this for which you would like some clarification? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

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