The present tense is relatively easy: "lay" requires an object (you lay a book on the table), and "lie" doesn't (you lie on the sofa). The past tense and participles get so confusing though that we made a chart!
Today's topic is "lay" versus "lie."
Listen to the Grammar Girl podcast! Once you've mastered the difference between lay and lie, check out the most recent grammar episodes from Grammar Girl below.
How to Remember the Difference Between 'Lay' and 'Lie'
Here are four ways to remember the difference:
- "Lay" vs. "Lie" in Present Tense
- Think "Lay it on me"
- "Lay" vs. "Lie" in Past Tense
- How to Conjugate "Lay" and "Lie"
1. 'Lay' Versus 'Lie' in the Present Tense
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 book.
There are a bunch of ways to remember this part.
2. Remember the Phrase 'Lay It on Me'
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" 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.”
You lay something down, and people lie down by themselves.
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. Let's move on to the past tense—it's harder.