CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

The difference between lay and lie

TLDR: You would lie down on a bed. You would lay down your sword upon the table.

As one of my pet hates, I thought it was about time I wrote a little piece about these two little words; namely around the idea that they are not interchangeable, despite what many think.

Lay (verb)—to place something down upon a surface

To see whether the tablecloth fits, I will lay it down across the table.

She finished reading the final page, then laid the book down upon her lap.

’Lay down your weapons and we’ll allow you to leave this castle alive!’

In the above instances, it is the object (tablecloth, book, weapons) that is being placed somewhere (table, lap, down on the ground), meaning the word lay must be used, as opposed to lie. Think about a bricklayer being someone who lays bricks down and cements them into place. He’s not a brick-lier.

Lie (verb)—to become horizontal, as on a bed or the ground

Horses can both stand up and lie down to sleep.

When I’m in bed, I generally prefer to lie on my left side.

Humans generally relax when they’re lying down.

In the above examples, the horses and humans are capable of lying down by themselves, so lie must be used. This is the main difference between the two words. Lay is something that you do to something else—the tablecloth can’t lie down on its own because it’s an inanimate object, so you must lay it down. Lie is something that you do in order to become horizontal.

Where the confusion lies (ha ha) is probably in two main areas. Firstly, lie often becomes lay in the past tense.

The book lay on the table.

After the soccer game, I lay on the floor, completely exhausted.

The pieces of the puzzle lay across the carpet.

Secondly, the motion of laying something down can be done to parts of the body or other people (things that are normally capable of lying down independently), as well as the inanimate objects (tablecloth etc).

’Lay down your head and rest, my dear.’

She gently laid her baby down into the stroller.

The nurse laid the patient’s arm across his chest.

Now, before we finish up, it’s worth mentioning that our American friends probably disagree with almost everything I’ve said above, as they often use lay interchangeably with lie, meaning to become horizontal. While this may have become the norm across the Atlantic, that does not necessarily mean that it is correct. The influence of American culture in other English-speaking countries has caused a great deal of confusion for these two words (as well as many others), so watch out!

If you use non-US English, it is best to master the differences indicated above. If you are an American English user, well… I still think it’s beneficial, even if you ignore it!

Now, I think I need to lay some new sheets on my bed and go have a lie down.

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