Two words in the English language that confuse native speakers and English language learners alike are “lay” and “lie.” Both words involve someone or something in a horizontal position, but which one should you use? Is it “laying in bed” or “lying in bed?”
Lying in bed is correct. Both “laying” and “lying” are the present participles of the verbs “lay” and “lie.” “Lay” is a transitive verb that refers to putting something in a horizontal position, while“lie” is an intransitive verb that refers to being in a flat position.
We’ll examine the differences between the present participles as well as other forms of the verb “lay” and “lie.” There is often much confusion that results over their definitions and verb tenses, so we’ll discuss those along the way.
Is It Lying in Bed or Laying in Bed?
|Being or remaining in a horizontal position||Placing something down.|
Again, “laying” and “lying” are the present participles of the verbs “lay” and “lie.” A participle has the characteristics of a verb and an adjective. We form the present participle from the infinitive verb “to lay” or “to lie” by adding “-ing” (source).
“Laying” is the present participle form of the verb “lay,” which refers to the act of putting something in a horizontal position. In other words, it means you set something down. So, if you are in bed already, you are not laying in bed.
Don’t let the spelling of the participle “lying” mislead you since “lying” can also refer to the act of deceiving. “Lying” is the present participle form of the verb “lie,” and “lie” can also refer to the condition of being in a horizontal position on a flat surface. Therefore, when you are in bed already, you are lying in bed.
Again, “laying in bed” is never correct, so the correct present participle to use in this context will always be “lying.”
For more information regarding “-ing” verbs, read our article on “I wonder” or “I am wondering.”
Is It Laying on the Couch or Lying on the Couch?
Similarly, when you are in the horizontal position on your couch, you are lying on the couch. Since the couch is a more or less flat surface for you to lie on, “lying” is the correct present participle describing your condition at that moment.
However, you could be laying something on the couch, e.g., “I’m laying my books on the couch so I can pick up my baby.”
What about Laying on the Beach or Lying on the Beach?
For the same reason, we say that someone is “lying on the beach,” as they are lying horizontally on an essentially flat surface. Now someone might be laying something on the beach, such as a mat or towel to lie on.
Lay vs. Lie as Verbs
“Lay” and “lie” share common roots, with “lay” serving as a causative word, while “lie” functions as a situational one (source). While they can both function as nouns, here, we’ll focus on their function and meaning as verbs.
One thing that will help you distinguish between the two is to remember that “lay” is a transitive verb that requires an object, while “lie” is an intransitive verb that does not require an object.
The Stative Verb Lie: Horizontal Position
“Lie” functions as a stative verb, not indicating an action so much as a state, condition, or situation (source).
“Lie” emerged in Middle English in the early 12th century, meaning to “rest horizontally” and to “be in a recumbent position.” This was a modification of Old English “licgan,” meaning to “be situated,” “have a specific position,” “be at rest,” and “lie down.”
They applied the word most often to lying in bed, and since the 13th century, English-speaking people have used the phrase “to lie in bed” quite regularly — often with implications of intercourse by at least 1300.
Action Verb Lie: Deceive
Unlike the stative definition of “lie,” “lie” can also be an action verb, meaning someone is telling a falsehood. When you are in the process of telling an untruth, you are lying.
The past tense of lie, when it means that you were telling an untruth, is lied. The past participle is also “lied,” e.g., “After he lied about his reason for being here, he turned around and ran.” The present participle is “lying,” e.g., “He is lying about everything.”
Causative Verb Lay: Put Down
One can use “lay” as a verb, noun, or adjective. As a verb, “lay” is causative, essentially meaning “to cause to lie” (source).
“Lay” comes from Old English “lecgan,” meaning “to place on the ground or surface.” It also means “put down,” coming from the Proto-Germanic word “lagojanan.” “Lagojanan” is also the source of Old Saxon “leggian” and Dutch “leggen,” meaning “to lay, put, place.”
If you’re the one lying comfortably on your back, you use the verb “lie,” but if you can replace the verb with another word like “place” or “put” — e.g., “I place myself on the bed” or “I put the cutlery and plates on the table” — then you use the verb “lay.”
Transitive Lay vs. Intransitive Lie
One easy way to distinguish the “lay” and “lie” is to ask yourself whether you need a direct object to describe what you mean.
“Lie” is an intransitive verb and does not need an object. We usually follow it with a prepositional phrase to indicate where someone is lying. On the other hand, “lay,” as a transitive verb, does require an object because you are laying something on a surface (source).
For example, you can lay yourself (direct object) in bed, but then you’ll lie in bed. In other words, “lay” describes the action to place yourself into bed. “Lie” describes the position you are in on the bed.
- Second-person: You get into bed and lie down.
- Third-person: He gets into bed and lies down.
- Second-person: You lay your book down next to you on the bed
- Third-person: She lays her books next to her on her bed.
- First-person: While lying in bed, I listen to my favorite radio drama.
- Third-person: While lying in his bed, he listens to his favorite radio drama.
- First-person: I am laying the table.
Lay vs. Lie: Past Tense and Past Participle
The present tense and present participle forms of “lay” and “lie” can be challenging, but the past tense and past participle forms can be even more confusing.
For example, the past tense of “lay” is “laid,” yet the past tense of “lie,” meaning to be in a horizontal position, takes the irregular form “lay.”
So the verb “lay” in the present tense takes on another meaning in the past tense. There are also key distinctions between the past participle forms of “lay” and “lie” since “lay” retains its past tense form “laid,” but “lie” takes the new form “lain” (source).
To make it more confusing, the past tense of “lie” can be “lied” when we use the definition of “lie” in the sense of deceiving someone (source).
Just to complete the picture, let’s look at a few sentences in past tense and use the past participle to illustrate them better.
The past tense of lie (lay):
Last night, I lay awake for hours in bed, unable to go to sleep.
There he lay, awake for hours in his bed, unable to go to sleep.
My cat lay on the bed for hours, waiting for me to come to bed.
The past tense of lay (laid):
Last night, she laid all of the ingredients for the next morning’s breakfast on the kitchen counter.
After she cleaned the house, she laid all her clothes for the outing on the chair in her room.
He laid everything from his pockets on the table to show that he had stolen nothing from the shop.
The past participle of lie (lain):
The innkeeper had just lain down to sleep when someone knocked at the door.
After their cat had lain on the bed for two hours, they chased her away.
After my toddler had lain in her bed crying for some time, I took her with me to my bed.
The past participle of lay (laid):
The book, which you laid on the bedside table, fell off the table.
After he laid his phone on the table, he played with his cat.
After I laid the newspaper down, I picked up my cat to play with her.
Review: Incorrect and Correct Use of Lay and Lie
The following are a few common incorrect uses of “lay” and “lie.” Remember, you can test the verb to see whether it needs an object or not. If it needs an object, it should be “lay”; otherwise, it is “lie.” The other test is whether it refers to an action (lay) or a passive position (lie).
- Incorrect: I lie the cell phone on my bed.
- Correct: I lay the cell phone on my bed.
- Incorrect: He lies his coat on the sofa.
- Correct: He lays his coat on the sofa.
Each of the previous sentences describes an action performed with an object, so the correct verb would be “lay.”
- Incorrect: After doing my exercises, I like to lay down for a few moments.
- Correct: After doing my exercises, I like to lie down for a few moments.
- Incorrect: I’m going to lay on the couch.
- Correct: I’m going to lie on the couch.
In these examples, a preposition immediately follows the verb instead of an object. The verb describes a condition and not an action, so the correct verb is “lie.”
Is It Lie Ahead or Lay Ahead?
The common expressions “Lay ahead” or “lie ahead” can also be confusing since this depends on whether you use the present or the past tense. “Lay ahead” is generally the past tense of “lie ahead,” meaning to be in the future.
However, “lies” and “lays” are in the third person singular present tense (source). As a transitive verb that must have a direct object, we cannot say “what lays ahead” and be grammatically correct.
While you might find “what lays ahead” in newspapers, usually that’s because they’re reporting what someone actually said (source). Still, using “lays ahead” is a common error that trips up the best writers.
If you talk about what lies ahead, it is something that will happen in the future. In contrast, we would use “what lay ahead” to refer to a time in the past when someone was looking toward the future. For example, “They knew what lay ahead of them, so they made the necessary preparations.” This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
For more on this phrase, read our article on “lay ahead” vs. “lie ahead.”
In the end, the most critical difference between “lay” and “lie” in the present tense is that “lay” describes the action of placing something in a horizontal position, while “lie” denotes the state of being in that position. Thus, you would be “lying” in bed.
One of the most straightforward ways to distinguish between the forms of “lay” and “lie” is to recall that “lay” is a transitive verb that needs an object, while “lie” is an intransitive verb that doesn’t need an object.
When dealing with their past tense and past participle variants, make sure you remember that the past tense form of “lie” is “lay,” but steer clear of “lays ahead” since that’s in the present tense. If you can keep that straight, the other forms should be relatively easy to remember.