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LIE vs. LAY: Differences, Conjugations, and Examples (AUDIO reading included)



Recommended level: Advanced


Perhaps you have heard the song "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol. It has a memorable chorus which uses the words "lay" and "lie" in the following ways:


If I lay here

If I just lay here

Would you lie with me

And just forget the world?


You can Google the discussions about the grammatical correctness of "lie" and "lay" in this song. If you read this article all the way to the bottom, you will find my answer in regard to the grammatical accuracy of these lyrics.


Before that, we need to discuss how to correctly use "lie" and "lay," and how to conjugate them when we speak in the present versus when we speak in the past.


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


"To Lie" means to rest in or assume a horizontal position. It is an intransitive verb, which means it does not take a direct object. ("Lie here, please.")


"To Lay" means to put or place something down. It is a transitive verb, which means it takes a direct object. ("Lay your books on the table.")


The easiest way to remember which verb is which is to remember that you need to lay something. For example, chickens lay eggs. A person can lay their head on a pillow. You can also lay something down. For instance, a parent or other caregiver can lay a baby down in a crib.


On the other hand, the verb "lie" is often used in the phrase "lie down." If you lie down, you are horizontal, or prostrate. A doctor might instruct you to lie down on an examination table. You can use "lie" in other situations, too. For instance, You can lie awake at night. You can lie asleep. You can lie motionless. A predator can lie in wait for its prey.


The final words of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous poem, "The Raven," also use "lie":


And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted—nevermore!


As you can see, the difference between the verbs is quite clear. So, why is there so much confusion?


Well...


Conjugating "lie" and "lay"

For many people, the confusion begins once we start conjugating "lie" and "lay" into past and continuous forms. Let's take a look to see what we mean:


Lie

Present: Lie (As in "Lie down.")

Past: Lay (As in "He lay motionless on the ground.")

Past participle: Lain (As in "She hadn't lain down all day.")

Present participle: Lying (As in "Terry's lying down on the couch.")


That's right. The past of "lie" is "lay." This can certainly cause some confusion if you have never taken the time to learn the differences between the two verbs. The next time you're reading a novel that is written in the past tense, pay attention and see if it uses the word "lay" to mean "He/She/They rested horizontally."


And what about "lay"? (Remember, you need to lay something.)


Lay

Present: Lay (As in "Lay the groceries down in the kitchen.")

Past: Laid (As in "She laid her hand on my shoulder.")

Past participle: Laid (As in "I haven't laid down my backpack since we started the trip.")

Present participle: Laying (As in "Come quick! The chickens are laying their eggs!")


How was that? To help solidify your knowledge of these verbs, here are some more common sentences that use them:


"There's a pencil lying on the floor."

"Don't just lie there. Get up and do something!"

"Yesterday, Brenda lay on the couch for five hours."

"Have you ever lain on a bed of nails?"

"You can lay that down in the other room."

"The gym teacher is laying orange cones down on the field."

"I laid my glasses next to the vase."

"Have you laid the cloth onto the table yet?"


So, what about "If I just lay here"?

Ah, yes. Here we are again, now wiser and better informed. What have we learned so far? Well, we now know that "lie" is intransitive, that "lay" is transitive--which means it needs an object--and we also know that "lay" is the past of the intransitive "lie." So, are these song lyrics grammatically correct or incorrect?


If I lay here

If I just lay here

Would you lie with me

And just forget the world?


If your instinct is to say "They're incorrect because 'lay' in 'If I lay here' doesn't have an object," you are...wrong.


Why?


Well, the lyrics above use another grammatical form called the second conditional. Here are some examples of second conditional sentences:


"If I had a million dollars, I would buy a new house."


"Would you miss me if I left?"


"Would you move to another country if you had the chance?"


Notice that when the second conditional is used in sentences like these, it has two parts: an "if" clause and a result clause. What is important to recognize is that an "if" clause in a second conditional sentence always has a past verb, like the verb "had" in "If I had a million dollars." The result clause uses the modal verb "would" followed by a present verb, like the verb "buy" in "I would buy a new house."


So, if we deconstruct the lyrics above and just create a clear second conditional sentence, we end up with "If I lay here, would you lie with me?" or "Would you lie with me if I lay here?", we see that the lyrics are in fact grammatically correct. "If I lay" uses the past form of "lie," which is what we use in second conditional "if" clauses, and "I would lie" uses the present simple form of "lie," which is what we use after a modal verb like "would."


If you got all that on the first try, congratulations. You can lie down now! If you didn't get it all, that's okay, too. These verbs are mixed up quite often, especially in casual situations, and most people won't correct you--probably because most of them also don't know the difference. But now, you at least know that there is a difference, and you can learn to use the verbs correctly with some practice.


Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article and found it useful, please consider getting a PDF, e-Book, or paperback copy of one of my books. By doing so, you are supporting your own English learning, and you are supporting me, which allows me to continue writing English learning articles just like this one. Thank you again and good luck with your studies.

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