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To Lie or To Lay, That is the Question

Due to our experience with the editorial service offered by Kirkus Reviews, we needed to master the proper use of to lie and to lay.

We thought we’d share what we learned with you in case it might be helpful to you, if you have also had difficulty mastering how to use them. Additionally, a very helpful guide on how to use lie and lay can be found here.

When our first Kirkus editor changed all of our laids to lays and our second Kirkus editor changed all of our lays back to laids, we set about trying to learn the rule for ourselves once and for all (it turned out that both editors were wrong — both lay and laid mean putting, but what was being done was reclining).

[A full account of our experience with Kirkus Editorial can be found here ].

After struggling to make sense of some very obtuse grammarians, we realized that the distinction is really very easy to keep straight as long as one keeps in mind what lie and lay actually mean.

To Lie is to recline or rest horizontally.

To Lay is to put or place something somewhere.

Lie — recline or rest / Lies or Lying — reclining or resting / Lay* — did recline or rest / Lain — had reclined or rested

If you lie, you recline. If it lies it is reclining. If you are lying, you are reclining. If you lay*, you did recline. If you have lain, you have reclined.

Lay — put or place / laying putting or placing / laid — put or placed

If you lay, you put. If your are laying, you are putting, If you laid, you have put.

(*When using lay to mean reclined or rested, only do so if the reclining or resting has already taken place, and it makes sense to use it in conjunction with the word did. i.e did lay. If, however, the person is in the act of reclining, is currently reclining, or has already reclined, use lie, lies/lying, or lain respectively.

Did lay is likely the source of all of the confusion, but just remember that while it is possible that you did lay on the bed, it is not possible that you did lay the keys on the table, because lay, meaning put, is present tense, and you cannot be both putting and having put at the same time. Having put is having laid).

The “Recline/Put Test:” When choosing between lie or lay, lain or laid, lying/lies or laying, see if your sentence makes sense if you swap lie or lay with put or recline.

If put doesn’t make sense when you swap it for lay, you need to use lie. If recline doesn’t make sense when you swap for it lie, you need to use lay. For example:

Was he [laying][putting] in bed? No, he was [lying][resting] in bed.

Had he [laid][put] in bed for days? No, he had [lain][rested] in bed for days.

[Did] he [lay][rest] in bed yesterday? Yes, he [did lay][rest] in bed yesterday.

He [lays][puts] back in the chair. [BAD]

He [lies][reclines] back in the chair. [GOOD]

Keep in mind that lie will be followed by an adverb that answers when, on what, and/or in what direction :

  • lie down over there
  • lies down over there
  • is lying down over there
  • had lain down over there
  • did lay down over there

Lay will be followed by a pronoun or a noun:

  • lay it down
  • laying it down
  • laid it down

So once you lay something down, it is lying where you laid it.

We hope this helps! Some additional posts that may be helpful as well: our post on our proofreader, Chereese, who we highly recommend; our post about our experiences using AutoCrit, an online substantive editing program that we also highly recommend; and our post about the various things we’ve learned over the past year, Publishing: Odds and Ends and Lessons Learn.

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