Lay Versus Lie

Lay Versus Lie

Today's topic is lay versus lie.

Hey Grammar Girl. This is Sandy from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I normally consider myself a pretty good writer, but I cannot seem to remember the rules that tell you when to use "lie" versus "lay." Can you help me out with that? Is there an easy way to remember that?

In fact, more than 20 different listeners have asked me to help them remember when to use lay and when to use lie, and I'm sorry it took so long. There's an easy part and a hard part to this answer.

First, we'll do the easy part, which is the present tense…

If you exclude the meaning "to tell an untruth" and just focus on the setting/reclining meaning of lay and lie, then the important distinction is that lay requires a direct object and lie does not. So, you lie down on the sofa (no direct object), but you lay the book down on the table (the book is the direct object).

This is in the present tense, where you are talking about doing something now: you lie down on the sofa and you lay down a pencil.

There are a bunch of ways to remember this part.

The way I remember is to think of the phrase "lay it on me." You're laying something (it, the direct object) on me. It's a catchy, dorky, 1970s kind of phrase, so I can remember it and remember that it is correct.

What's that I hear, music in the background? I know I don't normally play music, but I love Eric Clapton, and his song Lay Down Sally can actually help you remember the difference between lay and lie… [record screeching sound] because he's wrong.

To say "lay down Sally" would imply that someone should grab Sally and lay her down. If he wanted Sally to rest in his arms on her own, the correct line would be "lie down Sally."

We don't have to judge Clapton on his grammar; we can still love his music and at the same time know that it's grammatically incorrect! In fact, that helps us remember, and we can love him more.

If you're more of a Bob Dylan fan, you can remember that Lay Lady Lay is also wrong. The lyrics should be "Lie lady lie, lie across my big brass bed."

OK, so that was the present tense. It's pretty easy, you lay something down, people lie down by themselves, and Eric Clapton can help us remember.

But then everything goes all haywire, because lay is the past tense of lie. It's a total nightmare! I tried and tried to come up with a mnemonic for this, but I couldn't do it. Instead, I've made a table that you can print out from the website and tape up over your desk or in your notebook, because you just have to memorize this or look it up every time.

I'm going to tell you the words now, but if all goes as planned, I will also embed the table image into the podcast so that it will also show up as the album art for this episode, and you can follow along either on your computer monitor or on your mp3 player if you have one with a screen. I suppose you can even have the table with you at all times if you don't delete the episode and carry around your mp3 player. That is so cool! I love technology.

So, anyway, here's how to conjugate these two verbs:

The past tense of lie is lay, so

Last week, Steve lay down on the floor.
The cat lay in the mud after it rained yesterday.

The past tense of lay is laid, so

Last week, I laid the TPS report on your desk.
Mary forcefully laid her ring on the table.

The past participle of lie is lain, so

Steve has lain on the floor for days.
The cat has lain in the mud for hours.

The past participle of lay is laid, so

I have laid the TPS report on your desk.
Mary has forcefully laid her ring on the table.

Don't feel bad if you can't remember these right away. Practice will help, and truthfully, I still have to look them up every time I use them. It's just important to know what you know, and what you don't know, and to go to the trouble to look it up and get it right because these are hard-and-fast rules.

That's all.

Thanks to everyone who "dugg" Grammar Girl at last week. We haven't made it into the top 15 yet, but the show is listed as an up-and-coming podcast, and I think with a little luck and a little more help we could still make it!

This week's book winner is Cade, a recent communications design graduate who was entered into the giveaway when he posted a message on the blog. Congratulations, Cade, and please check your e-mail for instructions. You have won Vocabulary Dictionary and Workbook: 2856 Words You Must Know by Mark Phillips.

Finally, a friend told me that January 24 has been designated Hug-A-Writer Day. That's the extent of my knowledge about it, but it seemed like a fun idea so I put a link on the Grammar Girl website to the hug-a-writer site. (

Please send questions and comments to or call them in to the voicemail line at 206-338-GIRL. In addition to the lay-versus-lie conjugation chart, you will also find a complete transcript of this podcast at the Grammar Girl website at

Grammar Girl is part of the Qdnow network, and we just launched a new podcast called The Traveling Avatar's Quick and Dirty Tips for a Better Second Life . If you play the game Second Life or have ever wondered what it's all about, check out The Traveling Avatar at iTunes or

Thanks for listening.



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