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The Written Word June 2008

Should You Use Lie or Lay in that Sentence?


Do you freeze when it comes time to write lie or lay, never sure which is right? If so, you're not alone. Most of us have stopped mid-sentence, unsure of the correct verb, grumbled about the language, and then reached for the dictionary.


Misuse lay for lie when speaking, and your audience will understand the meaning.  The error, if noticed, is soon forgotten.  As a writer, however, you can't afford mistakes in your manuscript.  While grammatical errors are permissible in dialogue for the sake of realism, you would not want your highly educated character to make one, and your narrative paragraphs should be error free.


Here are some examples to help clear up the confusion:


To Lay means to put something down.

I lay (or I am laying) the book on the table.

Yesterday, I laid two books on the table.

They have been laying there a long time.


To Lie means to recline or rest. 

I lie on the sofa (I am lying there.)

Yesterday, I lay there all day. 

I have lain on that old sofa many times.

You don't look well.  Perhaps you should lie down.


To lay as it applies to chickens

Hens lay eggs.  (My hens are laying.)

They laid eggs yesterday.

I hope they will lay again tomorrow.

They have laid eggs all summer.


To lie as it pertains to liars

She lies all the time.  You can’t believe a thing she says.

She lied to me yesterday.

I caught her lying to my brother last week.

She has been lying since the day she learned to speak.


A final word of warning: Never depend on your word processor to catch errors with these verbs. According to grammar check, "My hens are lying" is proper, but no one has ever been lied to by a chicken.