Grammar101: Lie and Lay
Grammar101: Lie and Lay
A Few Simple Rules Are All You Need
There's no doubt that, in its entirety, English grammar is complex, especially for someone learning English as a second language.
If you're a native English speaker and just want to avoid common grammatical errors in your writing (such as blog posts on your website) there are only a handful of rules that you need to memorize.
So this series of posts is for those who'd like to ditch the Grammarly crutch and just know what's right and what's not.
Here's the eighth one:
Lie and Lay
This one is surprisingly subtle. No wonder so many people get it wrong.
First up, let's dispense with one meaning of "lie".
We are NOT talking about telling untruths, or what some people call "fibs" or Australians call "porkies".
The context here is to put something (including yourself) down on top of something else.
So here's the first (and primary) difference:
Use "lie" to indicate that you are doing something with your own body or directing someone else to do so.
"I am going to lie down now" is an example of correct usage.
Another is "I want all you children to lie down and take a nap now".
An Exception (but not Exactly)
You might think that the prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep" breaks this rule, but not so.
As you'll see below, "lay" is used when you are acting on something else (such as laying bricks). In the prayer, you are acting on "me" so it's correct. If the word "me" weren't there, it would have to become "Now I lie down to sleep".
I said it was subtle, didn't I?
"Lay" is used when you are acting on something (or someone) else.
For example, "You can lay that box down over there" or "We are going to lay all those coffins on top of one another".
OK, that's all pretty straightforward, but here's where it gets complicated.
Oh No, Just When I Thought I Had It
You see, here's the problem.
"Lay" is also the past tense of "lie".
So "I am going to lie down and go to sleep" becomes, when you are telling someone the next day, "I lay down yesterday and went to sleep".
Never "I lied down yesterday and went to sleep".
Does It Matter?
This is one of the rare cases where I'm inclined to think it doesn't.
Sure, if you really want to get it right follow the rules above.
But if you get it wrong, you'll just say something like "I'm going to lay down now" and everyone will totally understand what you mean.
And that's really what it's all about.