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To Lie or Lay–That’s the Test Question

A client wrote recently asking me to explain the difference between lie and lay. The question brought back fond memories.

Although those fearsome verbs used to come up often in classes, no one asks about lie and lay anymore. In fact, my client was asking months after the class and only because she was soon to take a college placement test. She was sure those confusing verbs would appear on the grammar section.

For old time’s sake, here are lie and lay in context.

Lay = to put or to place.
  Present tense: Kit lays out the supplies each morning.
  Past tense: Jim laid his coat over the chair.
  Past participle: We have laid out some excellent plans.
  Progressive: The workers are laying new tile flooring.

Lie = to recline, to rest oneself
  Present tense: Kit lies down when she isn’t feeling well.
  Past tense: Jim lay in the sun too long.
  Past participle: The plans have lain on Greg’s desk for a week.
  Progressive: This tile is not lying flat.

Although the question doesn’t come up in classes anymore, I don’t assume that people are using lie and lay incorrectly. I believe most people know there’s a distinction, and they aren’t willing to get caught using the wrong form. So they follow the helpful rule "When in doubt, leave it out." Like this:

  Kit rests on the couch when she isn’t feeling well.
  Jim stayed in the sun too long.
  The plans have been on Greg’s desk for a week.
  This tile is not flat.

If you have an important exam coming up and would like a grammar rule explained, please write. Otherwise, just know how to get around the rule in case a sharp grammarian is lying in wait to correct you.

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.