Using Lay vs Lie

Instructor: Elizabeth Hance

Elizabeth has taught elementary and middle school special education, and has a master's degree in reading education.

In this lesson, you will learn to tell the difference between two very similar verbs: lay and lie. Although they have very similar meanings, they are used in different ways, and you need to be careful.

Lay It Down, Lie Yourself Down

It can be hard to tell the difference between lay and lie. They sound almost the same, and they have basically the same meaning. Keep in mind that the noun form of lie, an untruth, is not included here. This lesson will teach you how to tell the difference between lay and lie and how to use them accurately in your writing. The quick trick: lay must have a direct object, and lie does not need one.

A direct object is something that receives the action of the verb, or the action in the sentence. To find the direct object try asking yourself this question: 'He/she/it 'verbed' what?' Here's an example:

  • Johnny ate the cake.

To find the direct object, ask yourself, 'Johnny ate what?' Johnny ate the cake, so 'cake' is the direct object. It receives the action of the verb, 'ate.'

Here's another example:

  • Zuri gave her uncle a gigantic hug when she saw him.

Again, find the verb and ask yourself: 'Zuri gave what?' Zuri gave a hug, so 'hug' is the direct object.

In the Present

When you are writing in the present tense, or describing actions that are currently happening, and deciding between lay and lie, you just need to check for a direct object. If your sentence uses a direct object, use lay. If it does not, use lie. Check it out:

Lay + Direct Object

  • Please lay the blanket on the end of the bed. (Lay what? The blanket)
  • Lay your hands on his shoulder. (Lay what? Hands)
  • After you get the mail, please lay it on the counter. (Lay what? It - the mail)

Lie + NO Direct Object

  • Ricardo is exhausted, so he is going to go lie down.
  • The cat curls up and lies in its bed.

Past Tense: Be Careful

Things get a little bit trickier when you want to write or speak in the past tense. The past tense describes something that has already happened. Lay versus lie is harder in the past tense because the past tense of lie is lay!

This table shows lay versus lie in the present and past tenses

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