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English Lesson 7: Correct Use of Lie and Lay

April 26th, 2008

Correct use of the words lie and lay has been a confusing topic for many readers, especially people who are not native English speakers and may never have learned the proper usage rules. It has become very common for most people to mix up the usage of these two words in informal speech; even I have done this on occasion. However, it is important to know what these words actually mean and be able to use them correctly in any type of formal or written work.

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Depending on which dictionary is used, one can find many different definitions listed for the word lie, but most of these represent very minor nuances and can be grouped together into two basic meanings. To begin with, lie can be used as an intransitive verb that means “to recline, rest, or remain in position”, as in the following examples:

  1. After feeling sick, I needed to lie down and get some rest.
  2. My political loyalties lie with the Libertarians and the third party movement, not with Republicans or Democrats.
  3. Our coastal property lies adjacent to the ocean.

The other major, well-known meaning of lie is to say something that is not true or provide false information. The word may be used in both noun and verb forms. This meaning is usually not confused with lay, but should be mentioned here for reasons of general knowledge and clarification. Politicians are infamous for their ability to lie without remorse and still persuade large numbers of people to vote for them anyway, as referenced in the following statements:

  1. Bill Clinton was probably lying when he said that he had smoked marijuana but did not inhale.
  2. In an attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” that posed a significant threat to the United States. Much to the chagrin of many American voters, this has turned out to be a lie.
  3. In view of the primitive simplicity of their minds, they more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big. — Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1925).

Meanwhile, the most common meaning of lay is “to put, place, or bring something into a particular position”. It is used as a transitive verb in this case, meaning that it requires a direct object of some sort. Note that this object does not necessarily need to be a physical, tangible item. It is possible to correctly use lay in reference to intangible things as long as the general idea of being put or placed is still there. For example, we can lay down a rule, law, or even a course (as in a navigational heading), but we cannot simply lay down on a bed. In the latter case, we must use lie. Here are some example sentences for correct usage of this form of lay:

  1. After our pirates had completed their voyage, they were eager to lay all of the treasure on the table so that we could properly divide the plunder.
  2. When the old king died, his successor was able to lay claim to the estate.
  3. The ship’s captain said, “let’s lay a course for Belize so that we can avoid these storms.”

Perhaps contributing to the confusion about proper usage, lay also happens to be the past tense form of lie when used in reference to resting or reclining. So while we must lie down to take a nap in the present, last night we lay on the bed before going to sleep. Again, here are some examples of correct usage:

  1. Yesterday we lay in the sun too long, and some of us now have sunburn.
  2. Last night I lay awake for hours wondering if there was really a dog. — Agnostic Dyslexic Insomniac

Finally, there is a third meaning of lay that is somewhat less common than the others, but still sees significant usage in modern English. This is the notion of a lay person as opposed to a professional or an expert in a particular field. This form of lay is always used as an adjective. For example:

  1. In late medieval societies, guilds were formed in which professional craft workers could be trained, obtain special privileges, and separated from the masses of lay people.
  2. It is a relatively rare occurrence for a lay person to represent himself or herself in court without retaining the services of an attorney.

Since it has become a customary feature for me to give examples of both correct and incorrect usage, I will provide two examples of these below. However, in practice the only mistake that I see being made is people using lay when they really mean lie (as in rest or recline). I cannot recall any instances where I have seen or heard anyone make the opposite mistake (using lie in place of lay).

Incorrect: When the attorney asked, “Are you sexually active?”, the woman replied, “No, not really. I just kind of lay there.”

Correct: When the attorney asked, “Are you sexually active?”, the woman replied, “No, not really. I just kind of lie there.”

Incorrect: My cat lied down three hours ago.

Correct: My cat lay down three hours ago.

For next week, I have not yet decided on exactly which issue I will cover, but there are still plenty of topics available. So far, we have had one vote for coverage of commas, one for coverage of quotation marks, and one for “could of” vs. “could have”, so there are no clear consensus winners at this point. As usual, anyone who wants to suggest a particular topic may do so in the comment section. If there are still no clear favorites by the end of next week, I will simply choose an English usage topic at random from my ongoing list of ideas that I have already compiled.


3 Responses to “English Lesson 7: Correct Use of Lie and Lay”

  1. comment number 1 by: Michael Aulia

    Thanks for the post. I never took notice of this before.

    “My cat lied down three hours ago”- I thought it’s a proper one. I’ll remember this next time :)

  2. comment number 2 by: Karlonia

    @Michael:

    Yes, lie and lay seem to be confusing for many people even if they are native English speakers. In the example that you cited, “lied” would actually be correct IF we were using lie to mean something that is not true - but in this case, that would not make much sense in the context of the sentence.

  3. comment number 3 by: Lazarus

    My gosh, this is useful. I’ve been torn in indecision which word to use my entire life. And now I know. Thank you ever so much.

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