The toughest verb choice I know: lie and lay.

Knowing when to use the various forms of the verbs lie and lay is the hardest writing and editing trick for me. In fact, here’s something I recently posted on Facebook: “Benefit of freelancing: I feel crummy, so I can break my own rule and lay on the couch Facebooking in the middle of the day.” A few hours later when I reread it, I had to add this corrective comment: “Ah! Lie on the couch! Bad editor, bad!” So this post is as much for my own future reference as it is for any of you! And it’s not just me: just yesterday I saw a query about which to use in a LinkedIn group for professional editors, and even Grammar Girl admits to having to look them up every time. All right (or is it alright? topic for another day…), time to quit stalling and get to it.

I try to keep my tips simple and free of technical jargon, but this time I’ll need just a bit. The difference between lie and lay is whether they require a direct object. A direct object is the entity being acted upon. Put another way, a direct object is what the subject of the sentence is verbing. In the sentence, “Jason hung the coat on the rack,” Jason is the subject, hung is the verb, and the coat is the direct object. In the sentence, “Marla gave the box to him,” Marla is the subject, gave is the verb, and the box is the direct object. Keep in mind that not every sentence has a direct object.

Now that we have that out of the way, it’s time for the big reveal. Use the various forms of the verb lie when there is NO direct object and use the various forms of the verb lay when there IS a direct object. Accordingly, lie means recline (i.e., the subject is reclining, so no direct object is needed) while lay means to put (i.e., put something–the direct object). Here’s a chart to help keep the forms straight:


Direct Object?

Root Verb

-ing Form

Past Tense

Past Participle

Recline No Lie Lying Lay Lain
Put Yes Lay Laying Laid Laid

Examples with lie:

  • Joe likes to lie on the couch all day.
  • Joe was lying on the couch when I came over.
  • Joe lay on the couch all day yesterday.
  • Joe has lain on the couch for weeks.

Examples with lay (with the direct object italicized):

  • Joe will lay his book on the couch when he is done reading it.
  • Joe will be laying his book on the couch when he is done reading it.
  • Joe laid his book on the couch when he was done reading it.
  • Joe has laid his book on the couch every evening.

Of course, there are many more definitions of both words than just recline and put (Merriam-Webster has 17 for lie and 32 for lay), but hopefully this clears up the most common mistakes with these two confusing verbs.


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