I did EFFECT vs. AFFECT last week, thinking someone had requested it.  I’m sure someone did, though I can’t seem to find any evidence of it.  But a reader definitely did ask me to do LAY vs. LIE, so I thought I’d take a shot today at minimizing the confusion about that one.

(Minimize, not eliminate.)

The thing with LAY vs. LIE, as with several of the other “mix-ups” I’ve addressed in the past couple of weeks, is that a great many English speakers don’t have a built-in “that doesn’t feel right” sensor for it, and even those who do often don’t know which one to use.  The result is that a whole lot of people just sort of use whichever one pops into their heads.

Don’t do that.  You need a system.

As I pointed out last week, the primary source of the confusion with EFFECT and AFFECT is that both words can be used both as nouns and as verbs.  So I’ll start with good news:  Although LAY and LIE are also used both as nouns and as verbs, the problem exists ONLY in their verb form.

LIE can be a noun, as in, “You’re not telling the truth!  That’s a LIE!”

And LAY can be a noun as well, as in, “I’m trying to figure out the LAY of the land.”

Nobody confuses these.  Nobody.  The problem isn’t with the noun versions.  It’s the verbs.

LAY is a transitive verb.  What does that mean?  It means it takes a direct object.  What does that mean?  It means you can’t just LAY DOWN when you have a headache.  If you do, you’ve chosen the wrong word.

You have to LAY SOMETHING.  That is, LAY is a verb you have to do TO something.

(You can snicker all you want, but by definition, a mnemonic is something that helps you remember things.  If you can remember that you need to LAY something, it’s working.)

If you have a headache, you can LAY your head on a nice, soft, down pillow, but you can’t just LAY down.

Hey, I didn’t make the rules . . I’m just trying to explain them.  Nobody said English was easy.

OK, so that’s LAY.

In contrast, LIE is an intransitive verb, which by definition CANNOT take a direct object.

Example:  My dog loves to LIE in the sun.  (Not LAY in the sun.)

I like to LIE in the sun myself, when it’s warm enough.  People in California are probably LYING in the sun even as I write this.  Me, I’m wearing a nice, thick sweatshirt right now.

When it warms up and I go out to LIE in the sun, I will probably LAY a towel on the ground first.

Note the direct object after LAY (the towel).

If you’re thinking you have a pretty good handle on the difference, pat yourself on the back.  But don’t get too smug, because I’m not done yet.


Because that’s all in the present tense.  And the past tense of LIE . . is LAY.

Sorry.  You can roll your eyes if you want to.  I’ll wait.


The past tense of LIE is LAY, and the past tense of LAY is LAID.

The good news is that the direct object rule still holds.

After I went swimming yesterday, I LAID my towel on the ground and LAY down on it to soak up a little sun.

If you can keep your eye on the direct object, it will all come together.

No lie.