I’m not going to lie: I have been trying to write this blog post for two weeks. Coherently and clearly explaining the correct use of “lie” and “lay” as verbs has proven extremely challenging. Every grammar website I’ve look at has described this as a particularly thorny problem of language use. Compounding the issue is that both words can also be used as nouns: a lie is, of course, an untruth, while a lay is the general appearance of an area, as in “the lay of the land.”
What I want to explain is the more common mistake of using “lay down” when the correct use is actually “lie down.” I see and hear it a lot, and while no one’s going to put someone on trial for it, I think it’s worth learning the distinction.
You say “lie” when you’re referring to yourself or another person and you mean that you or they are going to recline physically.
“I need to just lie here for a while.”
“Tell her to go lie down on the couch.”
But when placing any object (or person) somewhere, you say “lay.”
“Lay the book on the table.”
“Please go and lay the baby in her crib.”
“Lay it down over there.” (“It” can be anything.)
The important thing to remember is that when using “lay,” you need something to do it to. When using “lie,” you just go ahead and do it. (And really, sometimes, isn’t that what we all want?)
It gets even more complicated when you look at using the past tense of these words. The past tense of “lie” is, of course, “lay,” (English is ridiculous) while the past tense of “lay” is “laid.” (Make your jokes now; I’ll wait. Done? All right. Let’s proceed.)
“I lay down for an hour and then I felt better.”
“She laid all the plates on the table.”
Also note that the past tense of “lie” when using it to mean telling an untruth is “lied,” but this usage is incorrect in any other context. So you would never say “I lied down for an hour.”
I don’t have a cute mnemonic or rhyming scheme for this one, I’m sorry to say. If anyone does, please let me know because I’d love to hear it. Right now I think I need to go lie down. If you need me, I’ll be lying (not laying) in wait.