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The Lie-Lay Confusion Explained

Lay and lie are two words often interchanged mistakenly in business grammar.

Lay means “to place.” Lie, as a verb, means “to recline or tell an untruth.” (Lie, as a noun, means a falsehood.) Lie, as a noun is generally clear, but the verb lie and the verb lay can be confusing.

Lay (principal parts: lay, laid, laying) means “to put” or “to place” and needs an object to complete its meaning:
* Please lay the brochures carefully on the desk.
* I laid the two other notes there yesterday.
* The sales manager is always laying the blame on his staff when sales drop.

Lie (principal parts: lie, lay, lain, lying) means “recline or rest, or stay.” It can refer to either a person or thing as assuming or being in a reclining position. The verb “lie” cannot take an object:
* Now he lies in bed most of the day, sulking about the lost sale.
* The opportunities lay before us.
* This RFP has lain unanswered for days.
* Today’s mail is lying on the receptionist’s desk.

Here is an easy tip to check your use of these verbs: substitute the word “place, placed, or placing (depending on grammar structure.)  If the substitute fits, lay is correct. If not, use lie.

Remember: Lay = place.

To test this:

*I will (lie or lay) down now. You would not write, “I will place down now.” So, this tells you readily that lay is correct in this sentence: “I will lay down now.”
* I (laid or lay) the pad on his desk.  “I placed the pad on his desk” makes sense, so, lay is correct in this sentence: “I laid the pad on the desk.” (past tense)
* These files have (laid or lain) untouched for days. You would not write, “These files have placed untouched for days” so lie is correct: “These files have lain untouched.”

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Mary Cullen

About the author

Mary Cullen

Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.

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