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Lay and lie – a mistake even Nobel prizewinners make

Die Verben „to lie“ und „to lay“ werden immer wieder verwechselt – auch von Muttersprachlern.

By Moya Irvine

Bob Dylan may have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he wouldn’t win any prizes for grammar.  “Lay lady lay” is one of his best known songs – and grammatically speaking, it’s a disaster: it should really be “lie, lady lie”. Confusing the verbs “to lie” and “to lay” is one of the most common mistakes made by native English-speakers. And Bob Dylan has probably made matters worse with his song. People have got so used to hearing “lay” instead of “lie” in this context that they are no longer aware it’s wrong.  So here’s how to avoid Dylan’s famous mistake.

The verb lie is intransitive (doesn’t take an object) and means to lie down, to relax in a lying position

I like to lie down in the afternoon.

The verb lay is transitive (takes an object) and means to put something down.

Please lay your book on the desk.

The reason even native speakers have difficulties with these two verbs is that the past tense of “lie” is “lay”. The table shows you the tenses of both verbs:

present past past participle
lie lay lain
lay laid laid

Here are some correct examples of sentences with “lay”.

Yesterday he lay in bed all day because he had a cold. (past tense of “lie”)

I like to lay the table for breakfast before I go to bed. (present tense of “lay”).

So Bob Dylan should have sung: “Lie, lady lie, lie across my big brass bed.” However, that wouldn’t have sounded as good, especially not with the line: “Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile.”


to award verleihen – grammatically speaking grammatisch gesehen – to confuse verwechseln – to make matters worse das Ganze noch schlimmer machen – to be aware sich bewusst sein – to avoid vermeiden


US legend Bob Dylan performs on stage. | Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP/GettyImages