A Word with Beth — No Lies about Lie and Lay

March 16, 2014

Owl photographed by Raymond W. Stilborn.
Owl photographed by Raymond W. Stilborn.

The owl who gives a hoot about grammar is back this month, as I talk about a couple of words that lay traps for the unwary, then lie in wait for the traps to be sprung. 😉

While some might say that the language is evolving, and we shouldn’t worry about the mix-ups in usage, I think it’s still worth knowing which is currently correct, and why.


When someone writes “I was laying in bed this morning,” not only does it make me shudder, but it makes me ask “What were you laying? Breakfast eggs?”

Lay (as a present tense verb) always has an object. If you use the word “lay” you always need to answer the question “lay what?”  “Lay” implies an action done to something. The hen lays eggs.

Lie (a present tense verb) doesn’t have an object. The subject does the action. I always lie in bed for a long time before I go to sleep. (One caveat here: unfortunately, the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” I lay in bed for a long time before sleeping last night, as usual.)

Writer’s Digest’s Online Editor has an excellent chart at the end of a detailed explanation of the ins and outs of lie and lay.

My aunt, Myra Stilborn, who was a teacher to her core as well as being a talented poet (with a keen sense of humor) wrote a little verse that helps with remembering how to use these trickster words. When I spoke to my cousin Bev Brenna about using her mum’s poem, she agreed that Auntie Myra would have loved having her verse here where it could still teach people.

The turtle lays her eggs in sand,

She lays while I am spying.

But if you say you’re laying there,

I quite suspect you’re lying.*


I hope this helps! And I hope you’ll feel free to ask any tricky grammatical or word use questions that occur to you, either in the comments on this post, or by emailing me at mail (at) flubs2fixes (dot) com.

* (c) Myra Stilborn

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6 People reacted on this

  1. It’s the past tense that always gets me! A friend sent me Clinton Kelly’s definitions from “How to Speak” to help me.

  2. Love the poem! 🙂 And I have a question that came up this morning in conversation with my husband. Would you say: a field of dairy cows? or a field of dairy cattle? I believe both are plural. Does cattle refer to both genders and therefore you can use cows if they’re all female?

  3. *Guilty lol!!* I know I misuse lay and lie. Not on purpose, of course, but gosh if I don’t realize the error until an editor catches my writing boo boo and has to remind me of what should be used 🙂

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