Lay and lie are frequently confused verbs that have similar meanings (to do with objects or people lying horizontal on a surface), but for this one big detail - lay is transitive and always has a direct object; lie is intransitive and will never have a direct object.

The reason it seems confusing is that the past tense of lie also happens to be called lay. But this lay should be compared to laid - the past tense of lay. A great way to remember is to chant the present, past and past participle of each verb as one unit: lay-laid-laid and lie-lay-lain.

Comparison chart

Lay versus Lie comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartLayLie
Meaning To set or place something an object down in a horizontal position. To be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position; to recline; to remain inactive; to occupy a certain relative place or position.
Part of speech Transitive verb - requires a direct object. Intransitive verb - does not involve a direct object.
Infinitive / Present tense To lay: I, we, you, they lay / he, she, it lays To lie: I, we, you, they lie / he, she, it lies
Present, past, past participle forms Lay, laid, laid Lie, lay, lain
Present Tense Examples First-person: I lay the place mats on the table. Third-person: She lays out five designs per week. First-person: I feel the breeze as lie (down) on this park bench. Third-person: Watch out for the dog that lies in the corner.
Past tense Laid Lay
Past-tense examples First-person: I laid down my sword on the table. Third-person: He did a great job when he laid out these invoices. First-person: I heard a noise behind me as I lay on the recliner. Third-person: The siblings lay in their beds all day until their parents woke them up for dinner.
Past-participle examples First-person: I had laid out all our supplies for the day. Third-person: He had laid out nine bottles on the bar. First-person: I had lain under the blankets for too long. Third-person: She had lain on the lounge chair all morning.

Meaning

Lay means to set something down, to place, or to arrange it over or onto a surface. It is typically used in reference to inanimate objects — for example, I am going to lay out these candles on this shelf, or please lay this book on the table. The verb lay will always have a direct object.

Lie is a verb that means to recline, or to rest in a hosizontal position. It is often used to refer to people or animals — for example, I need to lie down in bed, or the dog lies in front of his master's grave for hours.

Verb Syntax

In this video, Emma explains the difference between lie and lay:

Presence of Direct Object

Lay is a transitive verb, and will always, without exception have a direct object. In other words, this will involve two nouns:

(Always ask: Jack lay WHAT on the table? - And there should be an answer: The book.)

(WHAT did I lay in her lap? - My head.)

The adverb phrase - i.e. the phrase indicating where the action took place need not necessarily have a noun.

The words 'table' and 'lap' in the above examples allude to where the action took place, but we really don't require any nouns here. E.g. I lay the book there. I lay my head down.

She lays the plate (direct object) on the table
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She lays the plate (direct object) on the table

Lie is an intransitive verb, and is only about what the subject is doing (by and to himself). It will never have a direct object, and the only required noun is the subject.

(Ask: Jack lies WHAT? And there's no answer, because there's no direct object.)

(I lie WHAT? No answer.)

Again, the adverb phrase may or may not have a noun. Do notice that when you ask Jack lies WHAT?, "on the grass" answers "where," not "what."). And even here, the adverbial noun need not exist. E.g. Jack lies down. I lie there.

No direct object
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No direct object


Action vs Position

Lay will always denote an action in progress; a motion. When you say Jack lays the book on the table, the book moves with Jack's hand on to the table. My head moves down onto her lap.

Notice there's a movement from point A to point B in laying the plate on the table
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Notice there's a movement from point A to point B in laying the plate on the table

Lie always denotes and unchanged position. When you say Jack lies on the bed, you refer to Jack's position, i.e. he is already there, lying on the bed.

She likes to lie on the wall - no movement
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She likes to lie on the wall - no movement

Why the Confusion?

Because unfortunately, the past tense of lie happens to be lay. This is how the two verbs look in the present, past and past participle forms:

Present Tense:

Jack lays the book on the table. Jill lies on the bed.

Past Tense:

Jack laid the book on the table. Jill lay on the bed.

Past Participle:

Jack had laid the book on the table. Jill had lain on the bed.

How to Remember

This confusion can be allayed by two simple tricks:

1. Chant the tenses in your mind as though you're still in elementary school: lay-laid-laid lie-lay-lain

2. Always ask "WHAT?" after the verb and look for a direct object, regardless of tense.

Present Tense: Jack lay the book on the table. Jill lies on the bed. (Jack lay WHAT? - The book. Jill lies WHAT? - No object.)

Past Tense: Jack laid the book on the table. Jill lay on the bed. (Jack lay WHAT? - The book. Jill lay WHAT? - No object.)

Participle:

Jack had laid the book on the table. Jill had lain on the bed. (Jack had laid WHAT? - The book. Jill had lain WHAT? - No object.)

References

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"Lay vs Lie." Diffen.com. Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 3 Dec 2016. < >