Lie Ahead or Lay Ahead – Which Is Correct?

The future. It’s a scary, mysterious place that we never quite get to visit. The second we make it to the future, it becomes the present – trippy, right?

So, when we’re discussing the infinite mysteries of the future, are we wondering about events that “lie ahead” or “lay ahead” of us? 

Lie Ahead or Lay Ahead – Which Is Correct?

Either “lie ahead” or “lay ahead” is correct depending on the context. “Lie ahead” is the present tense form while “lay ahead” is the past tense form of the same verb. Both refer to the future, but the latter refers to the future from the perspective of the past.

Lie Ahead or Lay Ahead

So, if you’re writing about a character in the past tense but they are considering events that will happen in their future, you would use “lay ahead”. If you’re writing in the present tense and looking towards the future, that’s when you’d use “lie ahead”.

Both “lie ahead” and “lays ahead” are intransitive phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs occur when a verb is combined with an adverb or preposition to create a phrase that has a different complete meaning than the verb on its own. 

If something “lies”, that’s just moving into a horizontal position on a surface. If something “lies ahead” that means it’s waiting in the future.

They are intransitive because they don’t require a direct object. 

  • The burrito lies ahead.

In this sentence, “the burrito” is the direct object – the thing being discussed by the phrasal verb.

  • What lies ahead?

In this sentence, there is no direct object, and the verb stands on its own.

Lie Ahead

The phrase “lie ahead” is used to refer to events that will happen in someone’s future. 

It can be used to refer to specific events or in a more general sense. It can have positive or negative connotations depending on the context.

It can also sometimes be written as “lies ahead” when it’s being used in combination with proper nouns, nouns or third-person pronouns.

Here are some examples of how you can use “lie ahead” in a sentence:

  • Great things lie ahead of you, young warrior, but your path won’t be an easy one.
  • What lies ahead of me is now unclear, when before my way seemed certain.
  • If we do this, do you understand what threats lie ahead of us?
  • I am prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead, so long as you stay by my side.
  • Would you really throw away all the opportunities that lie ahead of you for this girl?

Lay Ahead

Like “lie ahead”, this phrase refers to events that will happen in the future. However, it is in the past tense form. 

This means it can be used when you’re writing in the past tense, but characters are discussing the future, or when the speaker is discussing events that previously “lay ahead” of them.

If that sounds confusing, these example sentences will help you figure it out:

  • Before, he had always known what lay ahead of him; now his future was only in his hands.
  • What lay ahead had been decided before he was even born.
  • Do you miss the life that lay ahead of you before we met?
  • That night, she had cried in the dark cave for hours, thinking of the loneliness that lay ahead of her.
  • If he had known what lay ahead of him before he left, he would have asked different questions.

It is incorrect to say “lays ahead”. This is because “lay” only works with “ahead” when it’s being used as the past tense of the verb “lie”. 

The word “lays” is the third-person present tense of the verb “lay”, which means to “put down”. Unlike “lies”, this is a transitive verb, which means it needs an object, i.e., something to be put down.

As “ahead” is an adverb, it can’t come after “lays” on its own. An object needs to be added between the two.

  • Correct: He lays bricks ahead of him as he goes.
  • Incorrect: He doesn’t know what lays ahead.
  • Correct: He doesn’t know what lies ahead.

Which Is Used the Most?

“Lay ahead” is currently used more often than “lie ahead” but this hasn’t always been the case.

The Google Ngram Viewer for this one is pretty interesting. The two phrases begin very closely together until the 1930s, when “lie ahead” suddenly jumps up in usage massively. 

Lie Ahead or Lay Ahead usage

“Lies ahead” then begins to drop off in popularity quite steeply, while “lay ahead” has continued to steadily climb.

Final Thoughts

When discussing matters of the future, it’s appropriate to use either “lie ahead” or “lay ahead”. The latter should be used when writing in the past tense. The former when writing in the present tense. It is also valid to say “lies ahead” but not to say “lays ahead”.