Difference between lay and lie

What’s the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’?


These two words are often confused, so how do we know which one to use?

To explain this, it is necessary to delve into some English grammar, but I will try not to make it too complicated.


Firstly, we consider the verb ‘lay’, which means to place into a position, as in the sentence, ‘Hens lay eggs.’ In this sentence, ‘eggs’ is the object, so we can say that ‘lay’ is a transitive verb. The past tense of ‘lay’ is ‘laid’ as in ‘The hen laid an egg.’, while the past participle (a word used with another verb called an auxiliary) is also ‘laid’ as in ‘When I went into the barn, I noticed that the hen had laid three eggs.’ The present participle is ‘laying’, ‘The hen is laying an egg.’


Now let us consider the word ‘lie’ which means to rest such as ‘I lie on bed for an hour every afternoon.’ The verb ‘lie’ cannot have an object, so it is an intransitive verb. The past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’ as in ‘Yesterday afternoon, I lay on the bed for two hours.’ The past participle of lay is ‘lain’ as in ‘The treasure had lain on the ground for two years before anyone noticed it.’ The present participle of ‘lie’ is ‘lying’ as in ‘I cannot answer the door because I am lying on the couch.’


Confusion can arise because the past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’, and people confuse this with the present tense of ‘lay’. Consider the sentence, ‘I am tired, so I am going to lay on the bed for an hour.’ This is incorrect, because ‘lay’ is a transitive verb, but it has no object in this sentence. The correct form is ‘I am tired, so I am going to lie on the bed for an hour.’


The matter is further confused because the verb ‘lie’ has two meanings. It can mean ‘lie’ as in rest or recline, but it can also mean ‘lie’ as in telling an untruth. However, in both meanings, ‘lie’ is intransitive (has no object). When used as meaning telling an untruth the past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lied’ as in ‘I will never trust him again because he lied to me.’ The past participle is also ‘lied’ as in ‘She got the job because she had lied about her age.’ The present participle is ‘lying’ as in ‘I don’t believe you – you are lying.’


The following table is a useful guide to which word to use:



Present tense                                                       Past tense         Present participle         Past participle

lay (meaning to place in position)     laid                           laying                                       laid

lie (meaning to rest)                                       lay                             lying                                         lain

lie (meaning to tell an untruth)             lied                           lying                                         lied


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