Word Choice – Lay Versus Lie

Linden’s question: “The verb I always have trouble with is ‘lay’ and its past tense and past participle. Can you provide some guidance?”

BizwritingTip response: “Lay” and “lie” are two verbs that fall into the irregular category. In other words, the normal rules for changing their tenses do not apply.

But let’s start with their definitions.

According to dictionaries, lay means “to place.” Lie means to “be at rest on something ” or to “be in a certain position or relation.”

The simplest way to remember the difference is to try substituting the word “place” for the verb. If it makes sense, go with lay (and its variations). If it doesn’t make sense, use lie (and its variations).

Examples

Lay the food on the counter.  (Place the food on the counter – makes sense. Lay is correct.)
If you are not well, lie down on the couch. (Place down on the couch – makes no sense. Lie is correct.)
My loyalty lies with my supervisor. (My loyalty places with my supervisor – makes no sense. Lie is correct.)

Now for the confusing part. Both the past tense and past participle forms of lay are “laid.”

Examples

I laid my cell phone here yesterday.
We have laid copies of the minutes on the boardroom table.

However, the past tense of lie is “lay” and the past participle is “lain.”

Examples

As she was not well, she lay down on the couch.
Before the merger, my loyalty lay with my supervisor.
The reports have lain untouched on his desk.

Frankly, I avoid lay and lie whenever I can. And that’s not a lie.

Note: These rules do not come into play when you are using the word “lie” in terms of telling a falsehood. It is a regular verb — lie and lied.

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