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Confusion between To Lay and To Lie





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Following on from our previous article, today we will be considering two more verbs that are frequently confused: to lay and to lie.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives no less than 16 different usages of the first verb:

To lay (preterit: laid – progressive form: laying – past participle: laid), including:

  • to place horizontally on a surface (I laid the book on the table),

  • to put or bring into a certain position or state (to lay a carpet, a cable),

  • to place or present for consideration (he laid his proposal before the meeting),

  • to prepare or make ready (we laid our plans).

To lie (preterit: lay – progressive form: lying – past participle: lain) means:

  • to be in a horizontal position or at rest on something (the book lay on the table, I am going to lie on my bed),

  • to be situated (the gym lies to the left of the main building),

  • to remain undisturbed or not to discuss a matter (let matters lie),

  • or, in a legal context, to be admissible or sustainable (the objection will not lie).

Thus:

the dog lay on the floor is correct (preterit of “to lie”)

the dog is laying on the floor is incorrect – here, the verb to lie should be used: the dog is lying on the floor.

Compound forms of these verbs also cause problems:

To overlay is to superimpose (overlay a coat of paint with another coat), while to overlie is to be situated over (a layer of coal may overlie a layer of sandstone).

You may encounter these verbs in business documents in the following contexts or expressions:

Lay claim to = claim as one's own:

"Company ABC is trying to lay claim to the patent."

Lay down the law = to be authoritarian, give orders:

"…the supervisory authority clearly laid down the law."

Lay off = dismiss employees for economic reasons or discharge them temporarily because of a shortage of work:

"XYZ announced that it has laid off 50 employees".

Lay on the table = submit for discussion:

"The Chairman laid a motion on the table regarding the appointment of a new auditor."

Let lie = not raise for discussion or action:

"After 20 minutes of unsuccessful discussions we decided to let the matter lie for the moment."

"…the trade unions are refusing the let the matter lie."

Lie ahead = to be going to happen:

"The Finance Director said that although sales increased slightly last month a difficult time still lies ahead."

"…many challenges lie ahead."

Lie with = be the responsibility of a person, or to be dependent upon:

"…The responsibility ultimately lies with the Board."

"The future lies with digital technology."

Finally, to confuse matters even further, the verb to lie has a homonym: to lie meaning to tell an untruth, an intentionally false statement (a) or to be deceptive (b).

(a) They lied to me. The criminal lied when questioned by the police.

(b) The camera cannot lie.




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