Lay and lie are some of the most confusing words, even for writers. The confusion comes from lay being the past tense of the word lie. Despite it, there’s a clear difference between the two. When we say lay, it means to put someone or something down in a flat position. Meanwhile, lie as a verb means to be in a horizontal or resting position on something. As a noun and verb, it also means false statements and the act of telling them.
A trick to remembering whether we need to use lay or lie is to consider whether the appropriate word is a transitive or intransitive verb. Lay is a transitive verb. Thus, it needs an object. For example, in the context of “putting something down,” we say, “We lay something down,” not “We lay down.” If we only say the latter, “We lay down what?” Hence, we need an object (a person or a thing).
Meanwhile, lie is an intransitive verb, so it doesn’t need an object. For example, “I lie down.” Consequently, the sentence is complete already without an object.
When to Use Lay
As a verb, lay means to put something or something down in a flat position. Specifically, it’s a transitive verb. Thus, it needs an object (a person or a thing). Also, lay is the past tense of the verb “lie.” As an adjective, it’s used to describe someone who’s not trained or an unofficial church member.
Lay as a Transitive Verb
To put something or someone down into a flat position
As I lay my hands on my knees, I take deep breaths.
I’m careful when laying the baby on the bed.
We lay the grill on the ground after having a barbecue.
The past tense of “lie”
She lay back against the pillows.
For a few minutes, Tristan just lay there.
Lay as an Adjective
Not trained in a profession or subject
Being a lay witness in a court is scary.
He may be a lay worker as a receptionist, but he’s good.
An unofficial position in the church
The lay minister is waiting for the priest.
Many young people admire the non-conformist lay preacher.
When to Use Lie
We use lie as a verb and a noun. In the context of lay vs. lie, the verb lie means to be in a horizontal position. Moreover, lie is an intransitive verb and doesn’t need an object. The other common definition is to tell someone a false statement. As a noun, it means an untrue or misleading statement.
Lie as an Intransitive Verb
To be in a horizontal position on a surface
The dog was found lying dead on the floor.
I lie down on the bed and relax during weekends.
To tell someone something that’s untrue
I lied about the reason for not coming to your party.
When she found out that he was lying, she was hurt.
To create a false impression
The statistics on mainstream media sometimes lie.
Don’t be fooled by social media, as they often lie.
Lie as a Noun
An untrue statement
Their non-stop lies mold someone to be distrustful.
They keep spreading lies to create tension.
Lay vs. Lie: Which One is Correct?
Lay and lie are both correct, but depending on the context. Remember, use lay when putting somebody or something down and use lie when referring to being in a horizontal position or talking about false statements.
Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.) Lay. In https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/ dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/lay
Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.) Lie. In https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/ dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/lie
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. (n.d.). Lay. In https://www.ldoceonline.com/ dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/lay
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. (n.d.). Lie. In https://www.ldoceonline.com/ dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/lie
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Lay. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lay
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Lie. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lie