The regular verb ‘lie’

The regular verb ‘to lie’ means ‘to not tell the truth’, and as it’s regular, the paradigm is simple – ‘lie, lied, lied’. This is the verb which is the least easy to confuse, naturally, as it’s regular and is totally different in meaning to the other two spookily similar verbs, whose three forms really are a little tricky to get your head around.

The irregular verb ‘to lie’

The irregular verb ‘to lie’ means ‘to be in a horizontal position’ e.g to rest, or recline. It’s also an intransitive verb, meaning there is no direct object of the verb. The paradigm of this verb is ‘lie, lay, lain’.

1. When we don’t know who does the action in a sentence.

The irregular verb ‘to lay’.

The irregular verb ‘to lay’ means ‘to put something carefully on a surface’. ‘Lay’ is a transitive verb, meaning the verb needs a direct object. Someone must lay something down – it cannot be used alone. The paradigm of this verb is ‘lay, laid, laid’.

See where the confusion comes from? The simple past of ‘lie’ is exactly the same as the verb ‘to lay’. This is what most people mix up, and use the verb ‘to lay’ when they need to use ‘to lie’. Look at the following two sentences:

Jamie laid his book down on the bed and got up to investigate the noise.

Jamie lay on the bed, wondering if he should get up to investigate the noise.

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The first sentence uses ‘to lay’, which means the verb needs a direct object – we cannot just say ‘Jamie laid on the bed’. We need to know what he put on the bed – think of it in the same way as you would use the verb ‘put’, which also needs a direct object.

If you can put the book on the bed, you can lay the book on the bed.

The second sentence uses ‘to lie’ in its past simple form, and while the words ‘on the bed’ follow the verb, it’s still intransitive – it needs no object. Think of it as similar to the verb ‘to rest’. If we can say Jamie was resting on the bed, then we can say Jamie was lying on the bed.

Another common confusion is the imperative form of these verbs. Dogs are often told, incorrectly, to ‘lay down!’. Remember that the verb ‘to lay’ needs a direct object? Therefore, this imperative form is incorrect. We must tell someone to lay something somewhere. ‘Lay the book down!’ This imperative use of the verb ‘to lay’ is correct. If we want an animal, or a person, to be in a reclined, horizontal position, we must use ‘to lie’, and say ‘lie down!’

Here you’ll find some more example sentences using the three verbs, and then an exercise testing your knowledge on them.

Phillipa always lays the phone down where she can’t find it, and has to look for it for hours on end.

When I feel sick, nothing helps more than lying on the sofa and watching terrible television programmes.

Frederick lies so much that nobody believes what he says any more.

The builders are laying the bricks for the new house extension, so we expect it shouldn’t be too long until it’s finished.

The cat lay in the sun, enjoying the warmth.

He lied to his mother and said he hadn’t eaten the last biscuit.


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Joe Crowley