Lie, lay, lied and laid. Who said English was easy?!

Each Wednesday we run a Q&A session on the LEaF Facebook page. A few weeks ago, Inge Schumacher posed a great question that really opened a can of worms:

I never know how to write the translation for the German word “liegen”. Is it to lay or ly as in “something is lying on the floor” (Etwas liegt auf dem Boden.) I know that “lügen” means to “lie”. Is somebody “lying” then, too?

As a native English speaker, I have never really pondered the potential confusion that lies within this circle of words: lie, lay, lying, lied, laid. Upon closer inspection, it is quite clear why non-native speakers might find the whole matter totally confusing.

In this blog, I shall explain the difference between the various “lies” and hopefully bring some clarity to the murky waters of this English homophone.

crummock water, photo by LEaF
Murky waters, or Crummock Water on a wintry day, photo by LEaF

The three verbs: to lie, to lay and to lie

First let’s look at the three verbs in question: to lie, to lay and to lie.

“To lie” and “to lay” are the likely cause of the confusion. They are two separate verbs in English, but the past tense of “lie” is, confusingly, “lay”; the past tense of “lay” is “laid”; whereas “lied” is the past tense of the other “lie” verb, written the same, which refers to people who don’t tell the truth.

But let’s take it one step at a time…

The original question concerned whether “to lie” or “to lay” is the correct translation of “liegen” in German.

If you want to talk about something lying on the table, you would write “liegen” in German and use the English verb “to lie”, or “lying” in the present tense (I’m lying down because I am worn out). The past tense of this verb is, as mentioned above, “lay” – “the book lay on the table this morning” or “she lay down and immediately fell asleep”.

Now that all seems fairly straight forward. Until you consider that there is a second verb in English “to lay”. In other words, the present tense of this second verb is identical to the past tense of “lie” and the meaning is close enough to add to the confusion.

“To lay” means to put something down carefully in a flat position (so says the dictionary) and can be translated into German using “legen”. “Make sure you lay the book down gently”. It sounds quite outdated to my ears when used in that context. I am far more familiar with the English verb “lay” in the sense of laying the table, or “Tisch decken” in German. “Should I lay the table, Mum?” is a question I expect my two young children to ask me at least twice a day in the near future!

The past tense of this verb is “laid”. “But mum, I laid the table this morning” is a sentence I do not look forward to hearing, but entirely expect to be uttered on a regular basis…

a perfectly laid table
A perfectly laid table

So that explains lie, lying, lay, lay and laid. What about lied?

“Lied” is the past tense of the other meaning of “to lie”. You can tell lies, people can lie, someone can be lying and, when that happens, when you look back, they lied. Despite looking and sounding similar, “lied” has nothing to do with the first definition of “lie” that we looked at – going horizontal – it is purely used as the past participle of right-wing politicians’/Brexiteers’ current favourite game.

All clear? Good. Now, I’m not going to lie, it is definitely time for a lie down…

image 1 LEaF Translations

For more fascinating grammar tips and tricks, check out the other blogs from the Grammaticals series, including: The Art of the Apostrophe and Made of OR Made from? and Capitalisation.

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Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.