Lie and lay are infamously confusing to non-native speakers. It’s so bad that it sparked a cottage industry of click-baity articles full of sketchy ads. Since English is my third language, I stumbled a lot myself until I wrote this cheatsheet.

Differentiating between to lie and to lay is tough enough:

  • You lay your laptop on the table. You do it to an object.
  • Now the laptop lies on the table.
  • You lie down into your bed, when you want to sleep. You do it yourself.

It gets worse by the fact that to lie has two meanings:

  1. Resting on a flat surface (or be geographically located).
  2. Saying untrue things.

They do differentiate when you conjugate them, though. And to make things even worse, the simple past of #1 is lay. The ultimate troll.

Therefore, in simple past you get:

  • Their chicken laid many eggs last week.
  • She lay in her bed and thought about life.1
  • He lied to me yesterday.

For the sake of completeness:

  • to lay, laid, laid, laying
  • to lie, lay, lain, lying (resting)
  • to lie, lied, lied, lying (saying untrue things)

Yes, you have 2𝗑 lie, 2𝗑 lay (in two different tenses, no less!), and 2𝗑 lying. Thanks for nothing, Shakespeare!

And don’t get me even started about lie as a noun, where lie can mean lay in British English.

For more horrors, check out Merriam-Webster:

  1. Note the lack of the “s” at the end of lay↩︎