Word Confusion: Lay versus Lie

Posted June 13, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Lay versus Lie confuses the heck out of me, and I’m constantly referring back to this entry in the Word Confusions. Ahem, anyone with more examples that would make things even clearer…would be most gratefully added and credited…

As an adjective, lay is easy since it applies to a person. When referring to someone attached to a religious organization, it means someone not ordained. For Catholics, it means someone who cannot perform Mass or hear confessions. In law or medicine, it would mean the person could not argue in a trial or claim to be a doctor.

As a noun, lay is most commonly used as slang and can be applied to a man or woman while lie is morally inappropriate in a great many circumstances, but easy enough to recognize.

It’s when lay or lie are in their verb form that my head starts to ache and wanna go home. The main difference is lay = direct object with action and lie = doin’ nothin’.

The Grammar Curmudgeon with interesting comparisons between…
Lay Lie
Lay the book on the desk, would you?

You are actively affecting a direct object, the book.

The book is lying on the desk…

…it is reclining, resting there.

If you find a lay on the beach…

…you found someone with whom to engage in sexual intercourse…

When you go to Bermuda for your vacation, you spend your time lying on the beach

getting a tan, sleeping, reading…

If you are laying on the couch…

…you are placing someone or something on the couch.

If you lie down on the sofa to watch TV and spend the entire evening lying there…

…you’re not doing anything.

If you see something laying on the ground…

…it must be doing something else, such as laying eggs.

If you see something lying on the ground…

it is just resting there, doing nothing.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Lay Lie
Credit to: Grammar Girl and The Grammar Curmudgeon; Dictionary.com: lay and lie

Four men in navy blue singlets, straining at the oars

“The USA Lightweight 4 Rowing at the World Champs 2003” was photographed by Joel Rogers and uploaded by Johnteslade~commonswiki. It is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A race encourages one to lay on with the oars.

A focused group of brightly painted, wooden puppets

“Wooden Puppets” by Nicolas Vollmer from Munich, Germany, is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

That Pinocchio lies and lies and lies.

Part of Grammar:
Past tense for lie

Noun 1, 2 ;
Verb, intransitive & transitive 1

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: lays
Past tense or past participle: laid, having laid
Gerund or present participle: laying

Noun; Verb, intransitive & transitive

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: lies
Past tense: lay
Past participle: lain, having lain

lied, having lied

Gerund or present participle: lying

An action in process
Put something/someone down

Belonging to, performed by, or pertaining to a person who is not of the clergy, law profession, medicine

General appearance of an area

A short narrative or poem that is usually sung 2

[Slang] A partner for purposes of sexual intercourse

Verb, intransitive:
To lay eggs

To wager or bet

To apply oneself vigorously

To deal or aim blows vigorously (usually followed by on, at, about, etc.)

[Nonstandard] To be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position, as on a bed or the ground

  • Recline

[Of objects] To rest in a horizontal or flat position

To be or remain in a position or state of inactivity, subjection, restraint, concealment, etc.

To rest, press, or weigh (usually followed by on or upon)

To depend (usually followed by on or upon)

To be placed or situated

To be stretched out or extended

Verb, transitive:
As a verb, it requires a direct object:

You lay the book down on the sofa.


  1. Green indicates the direct object

Put or place something or someone down gently or carefully into a horizontal position
Requires no movement at all

An untruth, a fabrication, a statement that is purposefully false

Verb, intransitive:
As a verb, it does not require a direct object:

You lie down on the sofa.

The act of telling an untruth

Be in or assume a horizontal position, recline

Verb, transitive:
To bring about or affect by lying (often used reflexively (see “Pronoun” or “Me, Myself, & I” for more on the reflexive))

Checking out the lay of the land.

The Catholic Church uses quite a few lay men these days.

He is a lay preacher.

She was a sweet lay.

A minstrel may have sung a lay such as the poem by Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Verb, intransitive:
The hens are laying.

“The shorter the price you wish to lay, the less money you have to risk compared to your potential reward” (Betfair Help Centre).

They laid on their oars with enthusiasm.

He laid blows on right and left.

Dillinger will lay out his plans to rob the bank.

He often lays in bed all the morning.

The book lies on the table.

It’d be a good place to lie in ambush.

These things lie upon my mind.

There’s some nice land lying along the coast.

Explore the broad plain that lies before us.

When the wind lays, it’ll rain.

Verb, transitive:
Just lay the book down on the desk.

The hens are laying eggs.

Last week, Steve laid down on the floor.

The cat laid in the mud after it rained yesterday.


  1. Green indicates the direct object with the verb

Help me lay a cover on the bed.

He laid his finger on her lips.

He told a lie.

No, it’s lies, all lies!

Verb, intransitive:
Just lie there until I’m done.

He just laid there!

Steve has lain on the floor for days.

The cat has lain in the mud for hours.

Verb, transitive:
He was always able to lie himself out of a difficulty.

Janey was accustomed to lying her way out of difficulties.

Noun: lay-by, layaway, layman, laymen, layoff, layout, layperson, laypeople, laywoman, laywomen Noun: lie-down, lie-in
Phrasal Verb
lay about someone
lay about one
lay something aside
lay something down
lay something in
something up
lay into
lay off
lay someone off
lay something on
lay someone out
lay something out
lay up
lay someone up
lay something up
lie ahead
lie around
lie about
lie behind
lie in
lie off
lie to
lie with
History of the Word:
1 Old English lecgan is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch leggen and German legen, also to lie1.

2 Middle English.

Old English licgan is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch liggen and German liegen, from an Indo-European root shared by the Greek lektron, lekhos and Latin lectus meaning bed.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

“Laying down the law on lie versus lay” is courtesy of Allison VanNest at Ragan.com.