When to use lie and when to use lay

This tricky assortment of English verbs got me thinking the other day.

  • Do I lie down or lay down?
  • If I lay the table today, is it I laid it or I lain it yesterday?
  • Am I lieing, lying or laying?
Present tense—transitivity

Lie (recline) is something we do ourselves. We lay something else.

For example, we can let sleeping dogs lie, or have a lie down, but we have to lay something (lay your cards out; lay a blanket on the ground). In grammar terms, lie is an intransitive verb and lay is transitive.

Lie (speak an untruth) is a homonym (a word with the same spelling as another but a different meaning) of lie (relax).

Past tense—a curious turn

For past tense, lie (sprall out) becomes lay. Not confusing! Everything lay on the roll of a die.

Lay becomes laid. They laid twenty thousand on red. Lie (to fib) simply becomes lied.

Past participle—things stay irregular

The past participle is the form of the verb when we’re talking about now (or a point in the past) in relation to the past (or a point further back in the past). It’s when is/was or have or has or had get involved, and often get and got. For lie (rest) it’s lain. For example, the cat has lain there for hours.

Lay is laid again (the waitor has laid some drinks on the table), and lie (tell porkies) becomes lied once more.

Hope that helps explains it and if not, here’s a table I made, including confirmation of the -ing forms:

When to use lie and when to use lay


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