Save the English language: learn the difference between “to lie” and “to lay”

What's the difference between to lie and to lay?

This handsome man is LYING in bed. He may LAY down his screen. (He may also GET LAID.)

When I’m working as an editor, one of the mistakes I see most often is the misuse of to lie and to lay. I’m a substantive editor in the publishing world and a story editor (same thing) in the movie world. I help writers to build and shape their narratives. Grammar doesn’t really come into it. But this particular grammatical error drives me nuts.

Here’s the difference between the two verbs: to lie doesn’t have a direct object; to lay does. So you lie in bed and you lay your iPad on the bedside table. (iPad is the object.)

Things get confusing in the past tense because lay is the past tense of lie. (Why, dear God?) So you say, “I lay in bed yesterday”. And laid is the past tense of lay. So you say, “Yesterday, I laid my iPad on the table.”

If the past tense is messing with your head and, if you’re interested in using these verbs correctly—which, I understand, you may not be—don’t worry about the past tense. Just remember: in the present tense, to lie has no direct object, but to lay does. You do NOT lay down; you lie down.

Establish the present tense as a beachhead and, once that’s secure, go boldly forth from there.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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