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September 23, 2018
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she takes a look at the difference between lie and lay.

Dear Editor:

I still get confused about the difference between lie and lay. Can you explain the correct usage? —Tom S.

You are not alone, Tom. Lots of people have this problem. Think of it this way: you can just lie around for hours, but you have to lay something (a book) on something (the table). Here’s how it works.

Lie (as in, to recline) is an irregular, intransitive verb. That means it does not take an object. It is something you, yourself, do. The present tense is lie, the past tense is lay, and the past participle is (have) lain. “I often lie on the dock after a swim. Yesterday, I lay on the dock for an hour. Often, in the past, I have lain on the dock all afternoon.”

Lay (as in, to place or put) is a regular, transitive verb. That means it requires an object. The present tense is lay, the past tense is laid, and the past participle is (have) laid. “I’m going to lay the basket on the kitchen table. Yesterday I laid the basket on the table. Often, in the past, I have lain the basket on the table.”

The confusion creeps in because the word lay is both the present tense of the transitive verb lay and the past tense of the intransitive verb lie. But don’t worry about that too much. Just remember to lay your glasses on your bedside table before you lie down to go to sleep.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.

If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.