Difference between Lay and Lie

September 28, 2016 by Editorial Team

Lay and lie are two verbs that most people find confusing. This article will break down each word so we will know when to use them.


Lay vs Lie

Lie has two meanings. One is “to rest” or “to be in a horizontal or flat position.” Its past tense is lay and the past participle is lain. The second meaning is “to give false information as if it were the truth” or simply “to deceive.” But we’ll be focusing on the “recline” definition here, as this is the one where most people have a hard time.


  • Present tense: The buoy lies in 20 meters of water.
  • Past tense: Yesterday, she lay on my bed and poured her heart out.
  • Past perfect tense: The president had lain in a temperature-controlled crypt for more than 15 years.

Lay means “to put something (or someone) down” or “to place something or someone down in a flat position.” The past tense of lay is laid and so is the past participle.


  • Present tense: I need to lay the shoes on the floor in a particular way because my sister is very particular about this kind of things.
  • Past tense: He laid his head on her mother’s shoulders.
  • Past perfect tense: Karie had laid her cards on the table.

Lay vs Lie

So what is the difference between lay and lie? What makes it confusing? Both have similar meanings as they involve flat positions. Their primary difference is the object.

Let’s focus on the present tense. Lay is a transitive verb and it needs a direct object – something being laid – since it illustrates the kind of action that is done to something. There has to be a receiver of the action of the verb “to lay.” Try to substitute the word with “to place” or “to put” and it might be easier to understand it. Lie is an intransitive verb and will never have a direct object. Try to replace it with “to rest” or “to recline.”

Examples of to lay:

  • Chelsea wants to lay the kitten in the basket.
  • He laid the box of letters on the table unnoticed.
  • The government has urged the rebels to lay down arms.

Each one has a receiver: kitten, box, arms.

Examples of to lie:

  • I need to lie down for 15 minutes.
  • Lie on your back, close your eyes, and listen to the sound of the wind.
  • She wanted to just lie down and cry.

Comparison Chart

To place something or someone downTo be in a flat position
Transitive verbIntransitive verb
Needs a direct objectDoes not need a direct object


The video below will demonstrate and explain further the difference between lay and lie.