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“Lie,” “lay,” “laid,” “lain”—I think I need to go lie down. Don’t stress. These four forms all refer to the same idea. As always, context will point the way.

To begin with, discard your notions of the word “lie” as meaning “to tell a falsehood.” That’s not what we’re dealing with in this post.

The basic rule

Lie means to rest, or recline. It doesn’t require an object. Whoever or whatever is performing the verb “lie”, also receives that action.

Lay means to put something down or set something into place. “Lay” cannot stand by itself—it has to “lay” something down.

  • My chickens lay eggs each day.

  • My chickens lie down to sleep around dusk.

Easy enough, right?

The catch is that some forms of “lie” and “lay” are the same, but are used in different contexts.

Present Tense Past Tense Past Participle
Lie Lay Lain
Lay Laid Laid

When to use Lie

“Lie” is the present tense form of itself, and Lay is the past tense form.

  • I lie down on the couch after I eat my lunch every afternoon.

  • Rather than push the argument, Kevin let the discussion lie until a later time.

  • The start of the Appalachian Trail lies north of Charlottesville, Virginia.

In sentence 1, “lie” is referring to a horizontal position. In sentence 2, the “lie” is more metaphorical, meaning Kevin left the discussion alone, or he did not disturb it further. In sentence three, the “lie” is directional, as in the start of the trail rests north of Charlottesville.

“Lay” is the past tense form of “lie.” Notice that “lied” is not a word relating to this idea.

  • Yesterday, I lay down on the couch after I ate lunch.

  • Though the explorers had traveled far, their destination lay far ahead of them.

  • James searched all over the house, but finally spotted his car keys where they lay on the table.

In sentence 1, the action is undoubtedly taking place in the past. If you’re not sure what tense the sentence is in, try locating another verb that can indicate the tense for you. For instance, in sentence 2, “traveled” is a past tense verb, so you know that “lay” is also past tense. In sentence 3, the car keys were resting on the table.

“Lain” is the past participle form of “lie.” The past participle form is usually preceded by “has” or “have.” This indicates an action that is in a state of completion.

  • I have lain on that couch before.

  • The princess has lain in that castle since the spell was cast upon her.

  • When the tornado reached his house, Ezra had lain down in a ditch for protection.

Each of these sentences shows an act that has already been completed. In sentence 1, the speaker is not currently doing the action of lying on the couch. In sentence 2, the princess is taking no action, she is simply in a state of laying down. In sentence 3, the tornado comes to Ezra as he’s already taken cover in the ditch.

When to use Lay

“Lay” is the present tense of itself.

  • I lay my bags down by the door when I come home from work.

  • At the poker tournament, Kelly is visibly perspiring as she lays her final card.

  • Lay your sleeping bag by the entrance of the tent.

In sentence 1, the speaker isn’t in the action of laying the bags down, but she does presently do so on a habitual basis. In sentence 2, it’s clear that the action of laying is happening, as it is in sentence 3.

To tell the difference, just picture the idea. Is a thing being put down? If so, “lay” is correct.

“Laid” is the past tense of “lay.”

  • I laid the envelope on the dresser, then I left for good.

  • After taking the door off its hinges, Michael laid it on the saw horses.

  • When he came home from prom with alcohol on his breath, Billy’s dad laid down the law.

In sentence 1, “laid” has an object, “envelope.” In sentence 2, Michael is setting down the door. In sentence 3, even though the adverb “down” comes before the object “law,” Billy’s dad is still setting something into place.

“Laid” is also the past participle of “lay.” Remember, the past participle refers to a completed action and usually follows “have,” “has,” or “had.”

  • After I had laid the envelope on the dresser, I left for good.

  • Michal has laid the door on the saw horses, so he can begin sanding it.

  • Call me after 9 p.m., after I have laid the baby down to sleep.

In all of these examples, it’s clear what is being laid down.

Pop Quiz

Try your skill with these example sentences.

  • To make cookies, first you should preheat the oven. Then, (lie, lay) a piece of parchment paper on a baking pan.

  • Many galaxies and solar systems (lie, lay) outside the Milky Way galaxy.

  • You’ve made your bed, now you must (lie, lay) in it.

  • After Johnny had (lain, laid) the groceries down, he went back to the car to get his backpack.

  • The Titanic has (lain, laid) on the bottom of the ocean since it sank in 1912.

  • The day after the championship game, the players (lay, laid) around all day, because they were still tired.

  • After taking attendance each day, the teacher (lies, lays) the papers she’s graded on the corner of her desk.

  • I (lay, laid) the towel on the sand, but before I could lie on it, the wind blew it away.

  • The dogs have (lain, laid) quietly in the living room all afternoon.

  • When producing a new song, Kim (lies, lays) the beat first, then the bass line to the track.

Answers: 1. lay, 2. lie, 3. lie, 4. lain, 5. lain, 6. lay, 7. lays 8. laid, lie, 9. lain, 10. lays