Tuesday, June 19, 2007


This common mistake can really either make you sound totally uneducated or way sophisticated. It is the infamous lay vs. lie. I never understood the difference until I took a Precision Language course in college, and now I cringe every time someone uses these incorrectly.

Rather than giving you the definitions of these words, I’m going to show you the differences:
LAY – done to an object
LIE – done by the subject

Please LAY your paperwork down on the table. (The subject is doing something to something else – there is a direct object.)
I’m going to LIE down for a nap. (The subject is doing the action – no direct object.)

INCORRECT: I’m going to lay out at the pool for a few hours.

See if you can spot the mistakes in this excerpt from Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol:

If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me…

These lyrics should read:

If I LIE here
If I just LIE here
Would you lie with me (they used it correctly :)

Another common problem with these words is that their past tenses and past participles get confused. Let me clear it up for you:

LAY – LAID (past tense) – LAID (past participle)
LIE – LAY (past tense) – LAIN (past participle)

Have you seen my earrings? I LAID them on the table.
Yesterday, I LAY down for a nap.
I HAD LAID my purse on the counter, but now I can’t find it.
I WOULD HAVE LAIN down for a nap, but I was too busy.

NEVER say that someone HAS BEEN LAIN TO REST.

Good luck with this one! It can be hard to remember at first, but once you master it you will sound educated and intelligent.


Clarice said...

Hey. I personally think that knowing the difference between the words "lay " and "lie" is very important, and for the most part I think you have it covered, but I've noticed an error in your analysis of the snow patrol song. It's actually correct. "Lie" in the past tense (as in "to lie down" and not "to tell a lie") is lay. The reason why the lyricist uses the word "lay" in "If I lay here" is because this statement is written in the subjunctive form, a format used for statements written in the conditional (in this case, the "unreal" conditional). "If I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?" The first clause of this statement has the verb conjugated in the past tense, while the second clause has the verb conjugated in the present tense. Another example of a statement written in the unreal conditional is, "If I studied, I would pass the exam." But don't take my word for it: You can look all this up yourself =)

Take care!

Elena said...

Yes, I was going to say the same thing about the subjunctive. For example, if you were going to say "If I ran to school, I'd get there faster," you'd use what appears to be the past tense of 'ran.' You could also use 'run' but then the sentence would have to be "If I run to school, I will get there much faster." So either lay or lie could work in this song, but the fact that he then says "Would you lie with me" suggests that he means the first one to be in the subjunctive form and in the seeming past tense. I think we are so used to seeing 'lay' used incorrectly that we expect it in places where it is actually quite correct.

Warsaw Will said...

Congratulations Clarice and Elena. So many people just don't see this because they're so hung up with the lay / lie problem. This is a perfect example of what in TEFL is called 2nd Conditional - If + Past Simple (or Subjunctive if you like), would + infinitive - Snow Patrol got it absolutely right. And we know he's not too sure of himself because of the supplementary line - 'If I just lay here', so the use of 2nd (unreal) conditional is totally justified.

Anna Hub - Writer said...

Thank you so much for this, I have looked on other sites but this was the easiest to understand!

Corinne said...


Does this mean Wordsworth had it wrong in the "Daffodils" poem where he wrote, "oft when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood..."?

I guess it is understandable to sacrifice a bit of grammar for rhyme.

Language_lover said...



Wordsworth was correct when he said 'Oft when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye' . If it were 'lay' the sentence would read so, ' Oft when on my couch I LAY in vacant or in pensive mood, They FLASHED upon that inward eye'

So, no grammar was sacrificed for rhyme and I don't think Wordsworth would ever d that! :-)