Lie versus lay. Laid versus lay versus lain. It’s a question that confuses both new and experienced writers–and when it crops up in our own writing, we just want to lie down and die. Or is it lay?
Surprisingly, It’s not as difficult to figure out as it looks–and you don’t need any grammar background to do it. Follow this simple two-step process and make yourself a chart you can reference easily, and you may be able to lay (not lie) all your fears to rest.
Step 1: Find the correct verb.
There are two possible verbs here: to lie and to lay. they’re not exactly interchangeable, even though the meaning is similar.
To lie means to recline. To lay means to set or put or place something. Do you see the difference?
A helpful way to look at the question of lie versus lay is in terms of the result. By the end of the sentence, who or what is lying down (or was, or wants to be, or will be)?
If It’s the main character in the sentence, the person or being doing the action, who ends up reclined, then the verb to use is to lie. But if the main character in the sentence is doing the action–the laying down–to something or someone else, then the correct verb is to lay.
Example A: Sarah is tired and wants to lie down.
Here Sarah, the main character in the sentence, is doing the action to herself; She’s the one who ends up lying down. That’s why the verb used is to lie.
Example B: Sarah is tired and wants to lay down her heavy backpack.
In this case, Sarah is still the main character in the sentence, but she doesn’t end up lying down; she makes this happen to something else (her backpack). This kind of sentence requires the verb to lay. For grammar types, the backpack is the direct object, since It’s the thing the action’s being done to.
What about when the main actor of the sentence is not clear? First, figure out who the hidden main character, the actor, of the sentence is; then proceed with Step 1.
Example C: Lie down and go to sleep!
Here the main character, the person who is acting (or is supposed to be acting), is ?you?–or whomever is being addressed. Since the addressee is supposed to be doing the lying down himself or herself, use to lie.
The key point? If the person or thing lying down is the main character or actor of the sentence, use to lie. If the person or thing lying down is put in that position BY the main character or actor of the sentence, use to lay.
Step 2: Find the correct verb form.
Once you have the correct verb figured out, you still need to choose the right verb form (or tense). That’s where things can feel even more complicated, because the past tense of to lie is lay. don’t let that throw you. As long as you have the right verb chosen (see Step 1), you can easily figure out the proper verb form to use for the context of your sentence. Copy this chart and use it as a handy reference next time you encounter the lie versus lay question.
Example D: Sarah laid down her backpack and lay on the bed.
Use laid, the past tense of to lay, because the action’s being done to the backpack. Use lay, the past tense of to lie, because Sarah’s doing the action to herself.
That’s it. Just two steps. Does it still look wrong? Lie vs. lay is one of those usage problems that is so common that It’s hard to recognize the correct version. That’s okay. If you’ve followed Steps 1 and 2, you should be on the right track.
Still feeling overwhelmed? don’t try to memorize it all right now; rather, make yourself a handy reference chart with the steps and tenses above, and use it every time you come up against the lie versus lay problem. You won’t be alone; thousands of writing professionals use reference charts and tables to check themselves every time they write.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.
Editor’s note: A grammatical error was introduced into this column by yours truly, which Christina pointed out to me in an incredibly understanding manner. With her kind assistance, it’s been corrected. So if you saw the article with the error in it, trust me, it’s my fault, not hers. Mea culpa.