These are two different verbs. I once actually heard an editor say if she saw an author had confused the verbs, she would reject the manuscript. She had a point. 🙂 I tell students to either find out how the verbs are used or don’t use them. But of course the two are important verbs, and writers want to use them where necessary.
The distinction between the two words is a simple one: Lay, meaning to place something, is a transitive verb—which like all transitive verbs takes an object. Lay the napkins on the table (you wouldn’t say lie the napkins on the table, would you?). Lie, meaning to stretch out, is an intransitive verb (never mind the vocabulary) and never takes an object.
We would “lie down”—no object. We wouldn’t “lay down.”
The misuse of the verb form signals a bit of educational class warfare, explaining the above editor’s prejudice.
Let’s go to the past tense.
I lay (rested) there for quite some time then I remembered I had to lay (place) the napkins on the table.
So the past tense of lie (recline)—lay—is the same word as the present tense of the word for “to place”—lay.
That would seem to be confusing, but only if you don’t have the declension of the verbs in your head.
We don’t say I laid down and I laid there for quite a while. The word “laid” belongs to the verb to lay. (This is one I see a lot.) “I lay down, and I lay there quite a while” would be correct.
I also see “I was laying there,” also incorrect. I was lying there.
Because this is a bit confusing for some, I took this chart from Writer’s Digest (I teach there, so take a class with me at https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/).
Lay vs. Lie Chart
Infinitive Present Past Past Participle Present Participle
to lay (place) lay(s) laid laid laying
to lie (rest) lie(s) lay lain lying
I ask him to lay the silverware on the table. After he had laid the knives there and after he laid the spoons there, he lays the forks there. Soon, he is laying the plates on the table as well.
Meanwhile I decide to lie down. I lie on the floor. I lay there for quite a while until I had lain for too long. I was lying in the same position all that time.
Of course we do have another verb “to lie,” which means to tell an untruth. The past tense and the past participle of that verb is “lied.”
We’re clear on all this now, right? If not, do as I suggest my students do—if you don’t understand how to use these two quite different verbs, avoid them. Of course the better choice is to learn the difference. Good luck.
You can download my style guide The Naked Writer at Amazon.com. Or buy one of my novels in print (or ebooks) there—a middle grade fantasy, Strings; a YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey; and an adult science-fiction fantasy, Question Woman & Howling Sky. Contact me at GMikiH@yahoo.com if you need an edit.