Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Lay and lie

with 14 comments

Dad gets ready to lay on the table.

‘I’ll go and lay on the table,’ is my dad’s daily joke as he heads for the dining room knives and forks in hand…

Of course, if he were really going to do such a thing, it would be grammatically correct to say:

I’ll go and lie on the table.

But the joke is then lost.

The confusion over the words ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ is widespread.

‘Lie’ means to recline, or to be in a prostrate position, or for something to be on a (usually horizontal) surface.

‘Lay’ means to put something down. This can be something tangible such as a carpet (or knives and forks), or something intangible, such as the law:

I will lay the carpet and then I will lie on it.

After laying down the law she’ll need a long lie down.

They will lie on the beach; he will lie in bed until he is better; the book lies on the table.

A hen lays an egg; my dad lays the table; gas companies lay pipes.

The past tense

Brace yourself.

‘Laid’ is the past tense of ‘lay’.


‘Lay’ is the past tense of ‘lie’.

However, although it looks scary, it’s actually easy to remember: ‘lay’ cannot be the past tense of ‘lay’ so it must be the past tense of ‘lie’


Here are the different ways the word ‘lie’ can be used:

I lie on the beach.

I am lying on the beach.

I had lain on the beach for some hours before the sun went in.

I lay (past tense) on the beach for a long time and got burnt.

And here are the different ways the word ‘lay’ can be used.

I lay the table.

I am laying the table.

I had laid the table by the time everyone arrived.

I laid the table before everyone arrived.

To be technical, ‘lay’ is a mainly transitive verb, and ‘lie’ is an intransitive verb.

See Oxford Dictionaries on lay and scroll down the entry for an explanation of the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’.

More commonly confused words and phrases

Spelling tips and tricks


14 Responses

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  1. I am usually pretty good, but this is one I am dodgy about, especially in the past tense. Would it also be THEY lay down?

    Thanks for the ongoing good advice!


    22/04/2010 at 6:43 am

    • Hi — yes, it’s fiendish. I always have to think about this when writing — but I know I’m sometimes guilty of using the words wrongly when speaking.

      So — yes, ‘lay’ is the simple past tense of ‘lie’:

      They lay on the beach for a long time and got burnt.

      I’ve been trying to think of a good way to remember it all, but haven’t come up with anything yet!

      Thanks for the question though, which I hope has helped to explain it a bit more.

      (Anyone watching: Visit squirrelbasket’s lovely blog.)


      22/04/2010 at 8:08 am

  2. I think that this usage is so widespread in Britain that we are all flogging a dead horse. It’ll probably eventually become standard. Add “I was stood” and “I was sat” to the list and all. It’s got so bad that “The teacher stood the naughty boy in the corner,” sounds wrong.


    22/04/2010 at 10:22 am

    • Hello, Dai — yes, you’re probably right. For some reason, hearing the words ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ used wrongly doesn’t bother me so much, but I always like to see them written correctly in all but the most informal writing. It’s very strange, as you point out, how usage that is right can sound wrong. And similarly how spelling that is right can look wrong (‘separate’ being a prime example for me). Thanks, Dai.


      22/04/2010 at 10:30 am

  3. I could lie and say I knew all this, but in truth I laid the problem aside and avoided correcting my ignorance by choosing alternate vocabulary when I was unsure. The card remained unplayed, and stayed where it lay.

    Have you written about the “I was/I were” confusions? I fall in that hole pretty often and could use a rope.

    Invisible Mikey

    22/04/2010 at 11:50 am

    • Hi, Mikey — I think you’re far from alone in avoiding the ‘lie/lay’ conundrum! Re. the ‘I was/I were’ thing — I think you may mean the subjunctive? This link should take you there. Let me know if that’s not what you were thinking of.

      Btw — I love your post about the Wizard of Oz. I’ve only had time to read it quickly so far, but I’m going to read it again later.


      22/04/2010 at 11:58 am

  4. Using lay for lie is supposedly one of the most common usage errors — which suggests it may become accepted someday.

    Because lay is transitive, errors crop up when the verb appears to have a false object, as in “I laid low” (should be “lay low” — “low” is an adverb, not an object) or “He was laying in wait” (should be “lying” — “in wait” is an adverb phrase). The past participles always cause trouble: it’s common to misuse “lain” for “laid” because “lain” somehow sounds more elegant. (“Laid” also suggests sex, so folks steer around it.)

    My sis (who now keeps chickens) uses a nice, vivid mnemonic aid for the basic lay/lie distinction: a hen lays eggs.

    Michael Farrell

    22/04/2010 at 4:11 pm

    • Thanks, Michael — the phrases ‘laying in wait’ and ‘lay low’ are very common I think. ‘A hen lays eggs’ is a nice simple way to remember how ‘lay’ should be used. Those past tenses are still a bit tricky though…


      22/04/2010 at 4:16 pm

  5. The Globe uses “lie low” properly (here, as a past participle):

    “But I can’t understand why she gave that interview this week. The matter of her being dismissed from the federal cabinet and thrown out of the Conservative caucus was still very much in the news. And had she lain low, it’s possible that people might have forgotten that this is Helena Guergis we’re talking about – yes, that Helena Guergis, the former, ineffectual minister for the status of women who yelled at people working in an airport.”

    Michael Farrell

    16/05/2010 at 5:55 pm

    • Thanks, Michael — that’s a nice example.’Lain low’ is not often aired in public, let alone correctly. Give that writer a gold star.


      16/05/2010 at 6:34 pm

      • Google tells me that “lay low” is used more than twice as much as “lie low.” Garner points out that “lay low” is flatly incorrect as an infinitive. “Lie low” is the proper base verb (or verb phrase). But “lay low” is correct as the simple past of that verb: “I lay low to help a friend.”

        To muddle things even more, a cold or illness can lay you low. “Lay” is right because there’s an object: “you.”

        Fowler’s (3d ed.) has a great comment on lay/lie: “The paradigm is merciless, admitting no exceptions in standard English.”

        Michael Farrell

        16/05/2010 at 7:31 pm

  6. From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    “She testified that she remembered waking up in the back of a taxi afterward, laying on her side and vomiting.”

    “She could not account for the next few minutes, or perhaps hours. But she said she did remember waking up, laying face down on her bed, suddenly aware that someone was removing clothing from her legs.”

    Even while rushing to get breaking news onto the Web, we should catch this: make it “lying.”


    28/04/2011 at 12:51 pm

  7. From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    If the Sandusky interview had any purpose at all, it was as a reminder of how pervasive and intrusive television has become. Even accused pedophiles* who have every reason — and legal right — to lay low somehow believe that there is no alternative to TV.

    On the first point, the stylebook says this:

    Accused: Just as an accused stockbroker is a stockbroker, an accused forger is some type of forger. Avoid any construction that implies guilt on the part of someone merely accused, charged or suspected.

    On the second point: the phrase is “lie low,” of course.

    *UK spelling of ‘pedophile’ is ‘paedophile’.

    … and, the first problem highlighted here would be solved by writing, for example, ‘people accused of paedophilia’. More longwinded, but – minor detail – accurate.


    30/11/2011 at 5:37 pm

  8. From the Guardian:

    Xan Brooks is haunted and moved by Carol Morley’s docu-drama about a young woman whose body laid undiscovered in her London flat for three years

    That should be ‘whose body lay undiscovered in her London flat…”

    ‘Lay’ is the past tense of ‘lie’ which, as explained in this post, means ‘to recline’, or ‘to be in a prostrate position’.

    ‘Laid’is the past tense of ‘lay’ which means ‘to put something down’.

    Here’s a correct example from the BBC news website:

    The body of a former soldier from Norfolk probably lay undiscovered at his home for weeks after he died.


    16/01/2012 at 9:11 am

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