In the English language, some words sound similar. Even though the meanings are also similar, there are a few subtle differences that you ought to be aware of to prevent yourself from making mistakes that make it seem like you don’t understand the language.
Today, I want to talk about two words that cause the most confusion, even among people who know more than most about our language: Lay and lie.
“Lying down” or “Laying down”?
You would be laying the cloth over the table. But you would be lying on the sofa. The most significant difference is whether you’re doing it to yourself or something else.
In this article, I want to go over what the rules are, where the words come from, and what the other definitions of each word are.
The word lay comes from the Old English “lecgan”. Old English was one of the earliest forms of our language. Over time, our language changed until the new version became unrecognisable from the old.
“lecgan” comes from the Proto-Germanic “lagojanan”, and that word comes from the Proto-Indo-European “legh”.
This language was one of the first to arise; it’s the base language upon which most other western languages are based.
Lie, on the other hand, comes from the Old English “licgan”, you might have noticed, this is only one letter away from the Old English “lecgan”.
“licgan” comes from the Proto-Germanic “legjan”.
However, what connects the words “Lay” and “lie” is the Proto-Indo-European word “legh”. When language first became a thing, the two were the same. Back then, language was far less complex than it is today.
However, it was when Proto-Indo-European evolved into Proto-Germanic that laying and lying became two different things. Why did they decide to do this? I can’t say for sure. However, it was likely to avoid confusing the two concepts.
What get laid? (and no, the answer isn’t “not you”)
If you “lay” something, you are putting it onto something else, gently. So when you say you are “laying the table”, you are putting all the cutlery onto the table. Likewise, when a bird lays her eggs, she is placing them into her nest.
However, laying doesn’t just have to be with physical objects. You might hear a policeman say that he is “laying down the law”. Meaning he is putting in place the laws that people will need to obey.
So long as you are putting something down, that thing can be physical or an idea.
“Lying down” or “Laying down” – Table
Here is a table to help you decide which word you should be used based on the definition and tense.
|Word||Definition||Example sentence.||Present||Past||Past Participle||Present Participle|
|Lay||To place something down.||I lay the table every evening.||lay(s)||Laid||Laid||Laying|
|Lie||To be vertical on your back or stomach.||I lie down when I’m tired.||lie(s)||Lay||Lain||lying|
As we can see, you can use the word “lay” to describe something you do yourself and something you do to something else.
You could either say “I lay the table at 6:00 each evening”. Or you could say “I lay down at nine last night, but I didn’t sleep until midnight”.
Examples of “Lying down” vs. “Laying down”?
We can apply other definitions to most of the words in the table above. Let’s take a quick look at just a few examples.
If you “get laid”, that will mean that you’ve had sex. Usually, this is a one night encounter and not something that will go much further beyond that.
If you “lay a course”, you will have followed a particular guide to get to your intended location. And when you “lay a hedge”, you will have trimmed it.
Likewise with “lie”, you can “tell a lie” (an untruth), or objects can lie. Your favourite restaurant might lie next to the nail salon.
But even sticking with the definition laid out at the beginning, there are plenty of common phrases that use “lay”.
If someone is laid back, they don’t like to take anything too seriously. When “laying down the law”, you are making the rules clear.
If something is your right, you could be said to “lay claim to it”, and when you make your table ready for a meal, you could be told to “lay the table”.
When your past is behind you, you will have “laid the ghost”.
There are also plenty of idioms based on “lying”.
When you make a mistake, then moan about the consequences, I might tell you “you’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it”.
If you don’t want to be seen (for whatever reason), you could lie low.
If a politician changes his mind a lot, his stance on any topic could depend on “which way the wind lies”. And if “good things lie at your door”, you can expect a lot of positivity to happen in your future.
Why do we have all these rules?
With all of these strange rules, it does beg the question “why?”.
As we’ve already established, both words come from the Proto-Indo-European “legh”. It wasn’t until Proto-Germanic that they split into two separate words. The difference goes back to before the English language was ever a thing.
But ultimately, the reason why we have all these rules related to “lying” and “laying” is that languages are determined by popularity. It’s because people have used these words in the ways they have that their official definitions have come into place.
There is no denying that English is a weird and complicated language.
The difference between “lying down” and “laying down” is whether it’s an action with or without an object.
When you “lie down”, you are positioning yourself vertically on either your back or your stomach. But when you “lay something down”, you place it down.
These words started as the same word when language first became a thing, but when Proto-Indo-European became Proto-Germanic, that all changed.
Whilst you can lay (almost) anything, the law, eggs, objects, the only thing you can lie is yourself. I hope now; you won’t be making the rookie error of getting the two mixed up.