People often use lay or laying when they mean lie or lying. For instance, instead of writing, “I went to lie down on the couch,” someone might write, “I went to lay down on the couch.” This confusion probably arises from the fact that the past tense of lie is lay, muddying the distinction between the two words. 

If you’re having trouble deciding which verb is the correct one to use in a given sentence, ask yourself if the verb you want to use has a direct object or not. The verb to lie is intransitive—that is, it doesn’t take a direct object—while the verb to lay is transitive, meaning it is always followed by a direct object. In the example above, “I went to lie down on the couch,” lie does not have a direct object; therefore, lie is the correct verb to use in that case. If the sentence read, “I went to lay the book down on the couch,” lay is the correct verb to use, because it has a direct object, “the book.”

The same rule applies to lying and laying. You would write, “I was lying down on the couch,” because the verb was lying does not have a direct object. But you would write, “I was laying the book down on the couch when you walked in” because was laying has a direct object, “the book.” Apply this litmus test to every sentence in which you have to choose between lay and lie, or laying and lying, and you can’t go wrong!

Try applying this litmus test to the examples in our quiz!

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Barney Latimer

As senior editor of MLA publications, Barney Latimer has copyedited PMLA articles for more than ten years. He holds an MA in English from New York University. He has taught high school and college classes in writing and literary analysis, as well as seminars in poetry writing at several nonprofit organizations that serve New Yorkers with mental illness.