“Lie” vs. “Lay”
Updated: Sep 20
If we can replace “lay” or “lie” with “place,” “lay” is correct. If we can replace them with “recline,” then “lie” is correct.
The Short Story
What’s the difference?
If we can replace “lie” with “recline,” then “lie” is the correct word to use.
Ex: Lie down.
If we can replace “lay” with “place,” then “lay” is the correct word to use.
Ex: Lay the book down.
In order to understand the difference between “lie” and “lay,” it is important to know what these words actually mean. “Lie” means to recline. “Lay” means to place or set down. To help you remember the difference, just keep the following in mind: “lie” and “recline” both share a long I sound, while “lay” and “place” share a long A sound.
Although there are a few ways to determine if “lie” or “lay” should be used in a sentence, the easiest is to simply replace “lie” or “lay” with “recline” or “place.”
Let’s look at some examples:
Ex: I lie on the couch.
“Recline on the couch” makes sense. “I place on the couch” doesn’t make sense. So “lie” is correct.
Ex: I lay my bag on the floor.
“I place my bag on the floor” makes sense. “I recline my bag on the floor” doesn’t. “Lay” is correct.
Ex: The dog is laying in the sun.
“The dog is reclining in the sun” makes sense. “The dog is placing in the sun” doesn’t make sense. This means we should actually replace “laying” with “lying.”
Ex: She is lying her pencils in a row on her desk.
“She is placing her pencils in a row on her desk” makes sense. “She is reclining her pencils in a row on her desk” doesn’t make sense. “Laying” is correct here, not “lying.”
“I would like to lie next to him in the dark and watch him breathe and watch him sleep and wonder what he’s dreaming about and not get an inferiority complex if the dreams aren’t about me.”
(Cohn, Rachel, and David Levithan. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. Ember, 2014.)
“Lie” is correct here because the speaker is not placing anything down. She is imagining herself reclining, or lying down.
“Now I lay me down to sleep . . .”
(Trafton O'Neal, Debbie. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” Augsburg Books, (n.d.).)
This example is tricky, but “lay” is the correct word to use here. The speaker is referring to themselves as an entity that they are placing down. If they said, “Now I lay down to sleep” instead, “lie” would be correct.
“Laying the Foundation for Girls' Healthy Futures: Can Sports Play a Role?”
(M, Brady. “Laying the Foundation for Girls' Healthy Futures: Can Sports Play a Role?” Studies in Family Planning, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1998, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9561671/. )
Although nothing is being physically placed down, “laying” is correct here because a metaphorical foundation is being built.