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Caroling the "Lie"/"Lay" Distinction

English language users have long struggled with lie, meaning "to recline," and lay, meaning "to put down." This is in part because the past tense form of this lie is, well, lay and the past participles of the verbs are very similar.

It would help if the "to recline" lie were conjugated the same way as the "to tell a falsehood" lie: lie, lied, lied. But they're not, so we struggle to try to keep lie and lay straight:

Present Tense

Past Tense

Past Participle

Present Participle

lie, lies

lay

lain

lying

lay, lays

laid

laid

laying


Another reason for the confusion is that lay is often used to mean "to recline." In fact, prior to the 19th century, that usage was common and unremarkable. But from the 19th century on, we became aware of the "error" and taught people to correct it.

It's again becoming the fashion to use lay to mean "to recline," but it's a slow change and plenty of people like to keep the distinction. Whether you do or not, you're wise to know the difference, if only to know why you're being criticized.

Many of the traditional English Christmas carols we hear at this time of year were written or translated during the 19th century and thus use lie and lay distinctly. If we compare some song lyrics to our conjugation table above, we, too, can learn to keep lie and lay separate.

"How still we see thee lie"

We start with an easy one. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is a rarity among the Christmas carols I reviewed for being in the present tense ("Joy to the World" is another, but it doesn't lie or lay anything). With all the babies being put down and stories being told in the past tense, lay seems to overwhelm the list, but here we have a clear use of the present lie.

In the next stanza, we get "Why lies he in such mean estate / Where ox and ass are feeding," referring to the baby Jesus reclining in the food trough (the manger). Because he's reclining rather than putting something down, lies is the correct choice.

"The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head"

In "Away in a Manager," the baby puts his head down. Because the song is in the past tense, we want the past tense form of lay: laid.

In the next line, we hear "The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay." It might look wrong if you follow the lie/lay distinction. But remember that the song is in the past tense, so we need the past tense of lie, which is lay.

"The first Nowell the angels did say / Was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay"

If you heard the second line of "The First Nowell" in isolation, you might ask what the shepherds were putting down. But in context, you can see that the song is in the past tense, and we're again dealing with that confusing form of lie. A later line in the song, "Right over the place where Jesus lay," presents the same issue.

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining"

We can tell that the lay we have in this line from "O Holy Night" is the past tense of lie because if the world were putting something down, we'd need lays.

In the second stanza, we find "the King of Kings lay thus in a lowly manger." Lay belongs with King rather than Kings, so we can see that we're still in the past tense (though the chorus is in the present). The baby is reclined, making lie's past tense form the correct choice.

"See Him in a manger laid"

While the song "Angels We Have Heard on High" doesn't specify who put the baby in the manger, someone did. We want the past tense of lay.

"What child is this, who, laid to rest, / On Mary's lap is sleeping"

"What Child Is This?" contains a past participle, though the auxiliary was isn't present. Without context or the auxiliary verb, we might wonder if the child put something down. But, no, someone put Jesus down on Mary's lap, and he is now sleeping.

We also might wonder if the verb should be lain. Lain and laid are frequently confused, most likely because they sound so similar, but our table shows us laid is correct.

We know that older songs can be wonderful for showing us how life used to be lived. Now we know how observing the individual words and phrases can help us understand language better.

Happy holidays, everyone!


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 10th 2013, 7:20 PM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
When I was young and used "lay" where I should have used "lie", my mother would correct me by asking, "What are you laying - an egg?
Tuesday December 10th 2013, 11:01 PM
Comment by: Michael C. (Lansing, MI)
I have never seen "Noel" spelled "Nowell." That spelling seems rather novell.
Wednesday December 11th 2013, 5:28 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jacqueline, I think that was a popular phrase among parents and English teachers! Michael, it's actually an archaic spelling of "Noel"; the only place I see it is in the song title.
Friday December 13th 2013, 1:53 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Many thanks Erin to draw me attention to LIE and to LAY. I remember the difference ; you say; ;
to lie is to recline and to lay meaning to put down.
I have a question ; where is the fault when I say; I lay down on my bed; or I LIE on my bed?
I often said ;I lay down on my bed. Is my sentence correct?
Friday December 13th 2013, 2:13 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
In your sentence, using "lay" to mean "recline" (I reclined on my bed) is not universally accepted. You can use it in casual conversation and writing, but you might be criticized for it in more formal writing. Does that make sense?
Sunday December 15th 2013, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Alexander F.
Do sleeping dogs lay or lie?
Monday December 16th 2013, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
They lie, Alexander, because they're reclining. That said, when I was growing up, we told our dogs to go "lay down" or go "lie down" with equal frequency.
Friday December 27th 2013, 6:48 PM
Comment by: Abby (Royal Oak, MI)
My mother nagged me on the proper use of lay/lie and I do with my son, though with less vitriol. Saying it correctly and being sure about it, my skin crawls to hear the words used incorrectly. I confine my corrections to son and husband and sputter at commercials on television who NEVER get it right and it seems a conspiracy to keep more people sound ignorant. Like it or not, people in charge: teachers, bosses or potential bosses/employers notice such things (should anyway) so it does matter. Words are tools and just like in any trade, use of the correct tool is essential to competent fixing or building. People pay attention to using the correct tools or procedures to get things done, but somehow too many don't see the benefit of using our language correctly to describe what they are doing of have done. What's with that? Perfectly intelligent successful people still use lay/lie incorrectly and it doesn't sound wrong to them or occur to them that it sounds wrong. They are understood. I know I freely admit to being a word usage/grammar elitist. I'm not sorry. My son won't be either. He'll survive to impress those to whom he will need to impress when he needs a good job if musical theater doesn't pan out and college ought to be good for something. Wow, I sound awfully mad. It is one of my so called pet peeves. Enough from me. Abby
Monday January 6th, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You're right, Abby, that people pay attention to word usage and that elitists judge strongly people who aren't as precise with their words. One struggle for elitists, though, is that word meanings and usage change over time: If elitists don't keep up to some degree, they will be judged equally strongly as outdated.

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