To Lie or To Lay, That is the Question

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

I thought I’d share what I learned in case it might be of help to you. Additionally, a very helpful guide on how to use lie and lay can be found here.

When my first Kirkus editor changed all of my laids to lays and my second Kirkus editor changed all of my lays back to laids, I set about trying to learn the rule for myself 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 my experience with Kirkus Editorial can be found here ].

After struggling to make sense of some very obtuse grammarians, I 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 — have put or placed

If you lay, you put. If you 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 here, is present tense, so you cannot be both putting and having put at the same time. Having put is 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. [Did] she [lay][put] in bed yesterday? No, she [did not lay][put] in bed yesterday. The key word here is did: Did lay means did rest. If she put something on the bed, she laid. If she was on the bed, she lain.

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.

I hope this helps! Some additional posts that may be helpful as well: my post on my proofreader, Chereese, who I highly recommend; my post about my experience using AutoCrit, an online substantive editing program that I also highly recommend; and my post about the various things I’ve learned over the past year:

Publishing: Odds and Ends and Lessons Learn.