Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lay vs. Lie: Dog Day Afternoon

Samantha writes:
"I wrote an essay for my Language Arts class that included this sentence:
The tired dogs lay in the grass.
My teacher crossed out lay and wrote lie.  Am I wrong, or is she?"

People mix up lay and lie all the time because they both convey a similar sense of reclining or being at rest. But there is a key difference.

Quick rule:
  • Lay is a transitive verb. Use it when you have a direct object. I lay my keys on the table. She lays her head on the pillow.
  • Lie is an intransitive verb. Use it when you don't have a direct object. I'm going to lie down on the couch. He likes to lie on the grass and look at the sky.

When things get tricky: Be careful about tenses. Lay in the present tense looks identical to lie in the past tense.
  • Present tense: I lie on the couch.  
  • Past tense: I lay on the couch.
  • Present tense: I lay my weary body on the couch.

So the key question is: Which tense?
  • If Samantha was using the present tense, then her teacher is correct. The tired dogs lie in the grass. 
  • If Samantha was writing in the past tense, then she was correct. The tired dogs lay in the grass.

Examples (using present, past, and past participle):
  • I lie on the bed. I lay on the bed. I have lain on the bed.
  • He lays his cards on the table. He laid his cards on the table. He has laid his cards on the table.

Photo: Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr Creative Commons


  1. Great post, thanks! By the way, shouldn't it be "He layS his cards on the table"?

  2. D'oh! Of course it should be. Thanks, Jc. I'll fix it now. ;-)

  3. what about using reflexive pronouns, where "lie" ends up being replaced with "lay" after all? Now I lay me (myself) down to sleep . . . Somehow the children's prayer would sound goofy if it began: Now I lie down to sleep . . (-:

  4. There will be better opinions to be disclosed at later on stage by the students because in most of the regarded objects and opinions these are even said to be of utmost importance and the value.