Laying vs. Lying: Which One Should You Use?

"Laying" and "lying" are so similar—in both sound and meaning—that it's easy to use them interchangeably. But here's what each one really means.

Similar-but-not-identical pairs of words provide some of the most confusing grammar rules in English. There are, of course, homophones, words like “which” and “witch” that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. And then there are words with two different spellings for the exact same word, like “gray” vs. “grey.”

And then there are pairs of words like “laying” vs. “lying.” They sound incredibly similar, and mean virtually the same thing as well. Are they just interchangeable?

Well, as confusing grammar would have it, no. There is a difference, and we’ll discuss it all, including the correct way to use “lie down” vs. “lay down.” Plus, learn the difference between “toward” vs. “towards.”

Laying vs. lying: what’s the difference?

Sometimes, at the end of a long work week, all you want to do is just lie down. Or is it…lay down? Between “lie down” vs. “lay down,” which means to crash in a reclining position? The difference between “laying” vs. “lying” can be very confusing because they mean virtually the same thing. “Laying” and “lying” are both present participles, “laying” of the verb “lay” and “lying” of the verb “lie.” “Lay” means “to put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest; set down,” according to dictionary.com. “Lie” means “to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position.” At first glance, it seems like they could mean the exact same thing.

The difference, though, is that “lying” does not take a direct object, while “laying” always does. That description can be a little vague, so let’s break down each and give examples.

Verb Meaning Direct object? Present participle Past participle
Lay To put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest; set down Yes Laying Laid
Lie To be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position No Lying Lay

How to use “lying”

We’re not going to focus on the definition involving not telling the truth, since you won’t see people mixing that up with “laying”! “Lying” also means “assuming a horizontal position.” You can be “lying” down and you can be “lying” on a futon. “Lying” can also refer to something that’s already in a horizontal position (rather than assuming one). This can refer to both humans and inanimate objects. So when you say that you’re “laying” down because you’re tired, that’s actually one of the words you may be using wrong

Examples:

-He’s lying down upstairs because he’s tired from the flight.
-Please get the remote that’s lying on the ottoman.
-If you need me, I’ll be lying on the couch watching TV.

Also keep in mind that the present participle of “lie” is lying, with a “y,” not “lieing” with an “ie”—no matter whether you’re talking about lying down or lying as in telling a falsehood. “Lieing” isn’t a word.

How to use “laying”

The major confusion with “laying” vs. “lying,” in addition to their similar spellings and sounds, is that they also both refer to something being in a horizontal position. But the big difference is that while “lying” doesn’t need an object, “laying” does. “Laying” means putting something into such a position. You’re not just “laying” down; you need to be laying something down. This is also the word that refers to birds producing eggs.

Examples:

-Are you laying the baby down in the crib carefully so that she won’t cry?
-The painting isn’t dry yet, so I’m laying it down carefully.
-I think the hen will be laying eggs soon!

Confusingly enough, the word “lay” is (correctly) what you’ll find in the old rhyme “Now I lay me down to sleep,” even though it is talking about reclining sleepily. Since the rhymer is laying themselves down (a somewhat old-fashioned way of phrasing), the word “me” is the object of the sentence. If it was just “Now I lay down to sleep,” this would be incorrect. Find out the spelling and grammar rules no one can agree on.

Lay vs. lie: Past tenses

When you hear their different definitions, laying vs. lying seems easy enough to understand, even if remembering which is which is still a little confusing. But then you consider the past tenses of each verb, and lay vs. lie becomes even more complicated, almost comically so. Because the past tense of “lie” is…”lay”! So while you wouldn’t say “I need to lay down right now because I’m not feeling well,” you would say “I lay down yesterday because I wasn’t feeling well.” Yikes!

You can also think about the lyric in “Away in a Manger”: “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay.” “Looked” is past tense here, and “lay” is too. There is no direct object.

The past tense of “lay,” meanwhile, is not also “lay” (thankfully). It’s “laid.” Just like the present tense version, “laid” needs an object, as in, “She gently laid the sleeping baby into the crib.”

How to determine when to use laying vs. lying

The meat of it really does come down to remembering that lay/laying takes a direct object, while lie/lying does not. Grammarly offers the mnemonic “LAy means to pLAce (something)” and “LIe means to recLIne,” but that may not help when using the present participles, because “lying” does not have an “li” like “lie” does. The easiest way for me personally is to think about how chickens lay eggs. That statement has a direct object (“eggs,”) so “lay” always has one (in the present tense). Next, learn another confusing word difference: “affect vs. effect“!

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.