Lie Ahead or Lay Ahead: Differences in Meaning and Usage

The English language has many words that are easy for us to mix up, and “lay” and “lie” are two of them. The issue becomes worse when we consider the related phrasal verbs containing “ahead,” so which is correct: “lie ahead” or “lay ahead”?

Both lie ahead and lay ahead are correct as “lie ahead” includes the present tense form of the intransitive verb “lie,” while “lay ahead” uses the past tense form of the same verb. However, we cannot say “lays ahead” as that would be the third-person present tense of the transitive verb “lay,” which we follow with an object and not an adverb.

In this article, I’ll take a deeper look at the phrases “lay ahead” and “lie ahead,” their meanings and parts of speech, how they function in sentences, and why these two phrases cause so much confusion for English learners.

Lay Ahead or Lie Ahead?

Both “lay ahead” and “lie ahead” mean to “be in the future” or refer to something that is going to happen. “Lie ahead” is a phrasal verb, and a phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and an adverb or preposition that functions idiomatically as one unit (source).

Merriam-Webster defines the idiom “lie ahead” as “to be in the future.” Still, we can also use the phrase to indicate something that physically lies in front of us, occupying a relative location or position. The stative verb “lies” typically means to be in a horizontal position, and the adverb “ahead” means “at the head of” or “in front” (source). 

Phrasal verbs can be separable or inseparable, meaning you either can or cannot insert the direct object between its component parts (source). However, a phrasal verb can also be intransitive, and “lie ahead” is an intransitive phrasal verb that cannot take an object (source)

Both “lie ahead” and “lay ahead” are correct in their proper context as intransitive phrasal verbs. “Lie ahead” is in the present tense, referring to something awaiting us in the future, while “lay ahead” is in the past tense, indicating someone in the past looking toward what lies ahead of them. Consider the following examples:

  • We need to be ready for whatever dangers may lie ahead.
  • We don’t know what lies ahead.
  • An exciting future lies ahead of you after you graduate. 
  • She was eager to know what lay ahead. 

Note how the last example speaks of someone in the past who was looking toward something in the future. The event may have already occurred by the time someone wrote about it. However, at that moment in the past, she was still anticipating what lay ahead of her.

Lays Ahead or Lies Ahead? 

Perspective and TenseIntransitiveTransitive
First- and second-person present tenseLieLay
Third-person present tenseLiesLays
Past tenseLayLaid

While “lie ahead” and “lay ahead” are both correct in their proper context, we cannot say the same for the phrases “lays ahead” and “lies ahead.” One might assume we could just add an “s” to the end of “lay” and “lie,” and they would both mean essentially the same thing as “lay ahead” and “lie ahead”; however, this is not true.

While “lies ahead” is a legitimate phrase, “lays ahead” is not. Instead, the use of “lays ahead” is among the most common grammatical errors plaguing even the best writers.

“Lay” can only function with “ahead” as the past tense of the intransitive verb “lie.” Both “lays” and “lies” are in the third-person singular present tense (source). This means we use “lies ahead” with proper nouns, nouns, or third-person pronouns like “he,” “she,” or “it.”

“Lays” in the third-person singular present tense is a form of the transitive verb “lay,” meaning to place something down. As a transitive verb that must have a direct object, we cannot say “what lays ahead” since “ahead” is an adverb and not a noun.

Someone might be laying track ahead, a hen might have laid eggs ahead, or you might know someone who lays brick ahead, but you would need a direct object between the verb and the adverb. As a result, the correct phrasal verb to use would be “what lies ahead.”

Examples: 

  • Today, you graduate, and an exciting future lies ahead of you.
  • I can’t be certain of what lies ahead, but I am excited to find out.
  • Who knows what lies ahead for us in the future? 

The Differences Between Lay and Lie

To better understand the differences between “lay ahead” and “lie ahead,” it will help to have a solid grasp of the difference in meanings between “lay” and “lie.” Don’t feel bad; these two little words have been confusing English speakers for over 700 years.

The verb “lay” indicates the action of placing something down on a flat surface. As a transitive requiring an object to receive the action, the object would be the thing that you’re laying down.

The word “lie” is a stative, intransitive verb describing the condition of being in a flat position on a more-or-less flat surface (source). As an intransitive verb, “lie” and its forms do not require or accept an object (source).

The following table illustrates the need for the transitive verb “lay” to take a direct object.

Correct Incorrect
I lay the book on the table.I lie the book on the table.
He lays his jacket on the bed. He lies his jacket on the bed. 
The mother lays her baby in the crib. The mother lies her baby in the crib.  
After a run, I like to lie down for a few minutes to rest. After a run, I like to lay down for a few minutes to rest. 

When “lay” and “lie” change into their various forms, there is plenty of room for confusion. For instance, “lay” is the past tense of “lie,” and “laid” is the past tense of “lay.” To make matters worse, “lie” has more than one definition as a verb.

In the next few sections, we’ll outline the definitions of “lay” and “lie” and how you can easily distinguish them.

Key Definitions for the Verb Lay

Word FormsTense or Participle
Lay or LaysPresent
LaidPast Tense or Past Participle
LayingPresent Participle

“Lay” has several meanings related to the concept of placing an object on a relatively flat surface. Let’s have a look at these definitions and some of the word forms of “lay.”

Definitions With Examples

To put or set something down:

  • I lay my books on the table. 
  • She lays her books on the table.
  • I laid my books on the table.
  • I was laying my books on the table.

To spread over a surface or on it:

  • When building a house, workers lay bricks to form the walls.
  • The construction workers laid the foundation this morning.
  • She was laying the blanket on the bed.

To place in order:

  • Please lay the table for dinner.
  • She laid the table for dinner.

To place down on a surface for rest or sleep:

  • Now I lay my weary head down to sleep.
  • The mother laid her baby in the crib.

To produce eggs from the body and deposit them (animals).

  • Thousands of turtles lay their eggs on the beach every year.
  • Our chicken lays two eggs every morning.

Key Definitions for the Verb Lie

Word FormsTense or Participle
Lie or LiesPresent Tense
LayPast Tense
LainPast Participle
LyingPresent Participle

The verb “lie” can be particularly confusing for English language learners since the past tense of “lie” is “lay” while the past participle, though rarely used, is “lain.” Let’s look at the key definitions for “lie” and see how we can use them and their variant forms in sentences.

Definitions With Examples

To be in a position so that your body is flat on a surface, such as a floor or a bed:

  • I like to lie on the sofa.
  • Jeff was lying on the sofa, watching television.
  • I lay awake worrying about my life.
  • Sally had lain on her back in the sunshine.

To be an inanimate thing on a particular surface:

  • The blanket lies behind you.
  • He saw the remote as it lay on the table.
  • Pick up your clothes! They are lying all over the floor.

To be in a particular position or place:

  • The mountains lie ahead of us.
  • The village lies a few miles to the south. 
  • The farm lies in a deep valley. 

To hold a particular place or position in a competition:

  • MacMillan is currently lying in first place. 
  • He lay in second place before his brother overtook him.

Used to speak of plans or concepts and what they consist of:

  • He must decide where his future lies.
  • The difficulty lies in knowing what to do next.

If something remains in a particular state:

  • The house lay in a state of disrepair. 
  • The bag lay open on the table. 
  • The city lay in ruins.

When your interest lies in a particular subject: 

  • My interest lies in microbiology. 

There is, of course, an entirely different definition of “lie,” and that is to make a false statement with the intention of deceiving. It shares the present participle form “lying,” but it has the distinct past tense form of “lied.”

How to Remember the Difference Between Lay and Lie

A good way to remember the difference between “lay” and “lie” is to use the mnemonic place) and recline. “Lay” begins with the letters “l” and “a” and has a long sound like its definition “to place,” whereas “lie” begins with the letters “l” and “i” and has a long “I” sound, like its definition “to recline.”

Also, when deciding between the variations of “lay” and “lie,” the best thing to do is to determine whether there is a direct object in the sentence. If there is a direct object, then you will do well to use a form of “lay.”

An easy way to check for this is to look for a noun after “lay” or “lie.” You’ll notice that nouns typically follow “lay,” whereas adverbs like “ahead” or “down” typically follow “lie.” When you see an adverb directly after “lay,” you’ll know it should be the past tense form of “lie.”

A great resource to help you with these nuances is Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which you can purchase on Amazon. 

Laying and Lying 

Now that we know the differences between “lay” and “lie” and their various forms, let’s take a closer look at the present participles “laying” and “lying.” 

Some may shy away from the present participle “lying” because it shares the same spelling as the verb meaning deceiving. However, “lying” is also the state of being in a prone position on a flat surface. As you’ll recall, it can also refer to a state of inactivity while remaining concealed.

For this reason, we say things like “lying in bed” or “lying in wait” instead of “laying in bed” or “laying in wait.” Remember, “laying” is another form of the transitive verb “lay.”

Consider the following examples:

  • I spent the day lying in bed, looking at the ceiling.  
  • The cheetah was lying in wait for its prey. 
  • The papers were lying in the drawer.
  • The bodies of the soldiers were lying in a ditch after the battle.
  • The workers were laying track.

This article is written for strategiesforparents.com.

For more on this topic, look at our article, “Laying in Bed or Lying in Bed: Which Is Correct?

Final Thoughts

After taking an in-depth look at the phrases “lay ahead” and “lie ahead,” their meanings and parts of speech, and how we use them in sentences, we have seen that both terms are grammatically correct in their proper contexts.

We can use “lay ahead” when speaking in the past tense and “lie ahead” when speaking in the present tense. However, we cannot say “lays ahead” because “lays” in the third-person singular present tense is transitive and must have an object.

However, we can certainly use “lies ahead” as the third-person singular present tense form of the intransitive verb “lie.”

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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