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Lay vs. Lie

October 2010
Spot the Error

Sara has a headache, so Derek suggested that she take an aspirin and lay down for a while.

Lay and lie … two of the most confusing verbs in the English language. People often interchange the words and think nothing of it; however, the words do not mean the same thing.

Yes, they both have to do with placing something down. However, with lay, you’re transferring the action to something or someone else. (For grammar geeks, that means the verb is transitive and requires an object.)

Kris, please lay the baby in his crib. (The action is being transferred from Kris to the baby—it’s transitive—therefore, lay.)

With lie, there is no transfer of action. (It is intransitive and needs no object.)

I am exhausted; I need to lie down. (Involves no other person or object—it’s intransitive—therefore, lie.)

So, in the “headache” sentence above, the correct word is lie.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? … until you find out that the past tense of lie is lay. Wait. What? Really? No wonder it’s so confusing.

To give you some clarity, here are the tenses of these two verbs:

lie | (am) lying | lay | (have) lain

lay | (am) laying | laid | (have) laid

Tabitha was feeling sick yesterday; she lay in bed until well past noon.

In our poker game last night, John laid down a straight flush.

As I said, two of the most confusing verbs in the English language. So feel free to lay your laptop aside and lie down for a while to fully absorb this grammar tip.

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