Lie down or lay down – is there a difference?

Even though the two phrases seem similar, there are significant differences between lie down and lay down, and it all depends on what you mean. Keep reading to find out which one is which and why they might (but shouldn’t) be confused.

Lie down or lay down? Which form is correct meaning definition correct form examples

Lie down or lay down

Lie down or lay down? In the case of lie down, the word lie has the meaning of to be in a horizontal position. We would use it in expressions like to lie down on the bed (to assume a reclined position on the bed). We might teach our dog the command “down”, which is in fact short for “lie down”. More often than not, this is the meaning we’re aiming for.

Although it sounds quite similar, lay down has a different meaning and use. The verb lay in the infinitive form refers to the action of placing something (or someone) somewhere. This “something” is crucial here, because what distinguishes it from the first phrase is that it always needs an object, the something or someone that is being put down.

Lie and lay – why the confusion?

As we discussed above, lie and lay are two separate words, which is why they assume different forms depending on the tense and aspect. They’re also both irregular verbs, which adds to the confusion, because the past tense form of “lie” is – you guessed it – “lay”. This doesn’t, however, change the differences we’ve already discussed, it just means that you need to be extra careful with the conjugation of those pesky verbs. For a comprehensive discussion, see our article about the verbs lay and lie:

Lay vs. lie – which is correct?

So, how do we know whether the phrase “lay down” that we see is the past form of lie or the present or infinitive form of lay if they’re identical? Apart from looking at the context, in the case of phrases like lie down and lay down a good way to tell is to ask ourselves the question – do we have an explicit object in this sentence? Is something or someone being laid down (as in lay) or is something or someone just lying down (as in lie)?

Lie down or lay down? It’s all clear! Examples from press

We ride between 17 and 50 miles of hilly terrain per day and arrive at our destination each night spent, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction and relief as we lie down to sleep.

Washington Post, Jan 23, 2020

That night, she lay down to sleep to the sound of ambulances wailing on their way to a nearby hospital.

Washington Post, Apr 2, 2020

The street painting was intended to get the message up quickly; the stenciling and outlining was done by the Department of Transportation, and roughly 60 volunteers helped lay down 100 gallons of traffic paint.

New York Times, Jul 16, 2020

I placed the halves in the basket like laying down a newborn baby in a bassinet.

Salon, Nov 19, 2021

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She is a translator and EFL teacher with an MA in English studies, who dabbles in writing, subtitling and academic proofreading. When not pondering the complexities of linguistic correctness, she enjoys DIY, cycling and playing any type of guitar she can lay her hands on.