Lay, lie, and lies — a grammatical minefield

02 Jun

I just read an online article that attempted to explain the difference between “lay” vs “lie.”  It actually confused me more, and I had to visit grammar girl’s blog just to double-check myself:

Grammar girl has a good explanation, but I decided to provide my own helpful hint, just for fun and to show what a nerd I am.

“lay” vs “lie.”

Whenever I don’t know which to use, I recite the following.

“I lay me down” = “I lie down”

Hopefully, you’re familiar with the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” If not, Google it. J It’s a good mnemonic device for the above purpose.

Short and sweet explanation: “lay” has to have an object, in this case “me.”  I can’t “lay down” (at least not while using the word properly), because I need to say what I’m laying down (myself, a book, etc.). Neither can I “lie me” down, because lie doesn’t need an object.  See how silly it sounds?

This only applies to present tense, however, so have the following triplets memorized. (They represent present / past / past participle, but you don’t need to know that yet).

Lay / laid / laid

Lie / lay / lain

Don’t try to over-think it, just learn the pattern of the three that go together. These should be easy for anyone who’s had to memorize conjugation charts while studying a foreign language.

When you’re confused, first use the mnemonic to decide which one is correct. Once you’ve done that, match that word to whichever triplet has it at the beginning. Once you’ve got the triplet firmly in mind, then consider your tense. For present tense, use the first of the triplet, for past tense, use the second, and for past perfect, use the third.


Lay:  Today, I lay the book down.  Yesterday, I laid it down.  Every night, I have laid it down.

Lie: Today I lie down [because I’m tired].  Yesterday, I lay down [because my head hurt].  Every night, I have lain in bed with insomnia.

And if anybody ever tells you any different, well…that’s just a lie.

Was this helpful?  Do you have your own tips and tricks?  Feel free to share!


Posted by on June 2, 2013 in Writing


Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Lay, lie, and lies — a grammatical minefield

  1. scottkaelenofficial

    June 19, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    lie, lain, lay and laid all pertain to the sense of ‘setting something down’, etc.

    lie, lies, lying and lied all pertain to the sense of ‘not telling the truth’.

    I’ve always had a tough gig with the first sense of ‘lie’. Apart from understanding the above, I can’t really add anything more to it. If in doubt, let the proofreaders iron out those discrepancies! 🙂

    • Willow.M.Stevens

      June 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      It *is* confusing, even for grammar geeks like me. But I dare say even some proof-readers might miss it. Maybe we should all just make a pact to say “put it down” instead of “lay it down,” and “recline” instead of “lie down.” Do you think that would go over well? Don’t lie to me, now!


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