I thought this would be a quick search but I can't find the answer. I understand that lay is the past tense of lie but does this not sound awkward?

If one was writing in past tense, would it be correct to say something like "I opened the door to find her. She lay out on her back, staring at the ceiling."?

  • If you know that the past tense is lay, then what alternative is there?
    – tchrist
    Feb 4, 2018 at 4:12
  • If it sounds awkward, it's because few people bother with sounding educated these days—if they're even able to do so..
    – Robusto
    Feb 4, 2018 at 4:13
  • It's confusing because the infinitive that precedes it doesn't clue us in. Is this a historical present, or a simple past? Furthermore, the following absolute construction "staring at the ceiling" also accommodates either a present or past tense main clause. But do loose the out. Lay out is a phrasal verb with a different meaning.
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 4, 2018 at 5:58
  • Close voters - How does one research whether a sentence sounds awkward or not? To me, this is a usage question requiring an involved answer that covers different dialects and registers. And I have a suspicion it would still sound awkward even in the most formal situations. How is the reader to decide whether lay is past tense of lie or narrative present tense of lay?
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 4, 2018 at 16:30
  • Is the question what is correct, or is the question whether the correct version ‘’sounds awkward’’?   The first one is easily researched; the second one is primarily opinion-based. Feb 5, 2018 at 4:10

2 Answers 2


Using the simple past tense may sound awkward in your sentence because you actually mean to describe what Sally was doing when you opened the door. This is a context where the progressive form may be more appropriate. It would be the same with another verb like "sit": do you think "I opened the door to find her. She sat on a chair, staring at the wall" sounds natural?

I think you will find that the past progressive form sounds better in this context:

  • I opened the door to find her. She was lying out on her back, staring at the ceiling.

  • I opened the door to find her. She was sitting on a chair, staring at the wall.

It is possible to use the simple past tense form lay to describe a state in some contexts. For example, I don't think "Sally lay in her bed, reading a book" sounds bad as the first sentence of an utterance, when you're setting the scene. But to me, the progressive sounds better in the specific context of your sentence, which comes after the sentence "I opened the door to find her."

  • That was a really great example; using the present tense made me realize why it felt awkward. Thank you! Feb 4, 2018 at 4:32

There are three verbs in English that are easily mixed up.

  • One is 'to lie' meaning tell an untruth. It is a regular verb.
  • Then 'to lay' and 'to lie' both relate to something being in a horizontal position. Their meanings are distinctly different and both are irregular.

[Irregular verbs have one or both of their simple past tense and the past participle without the usual '-ed' ending.]

The latter two verbs are easily confused because the irregular simple past tense of 'to lie' is 'lay'.

I am a native speaker but I still refer to this list of irregular verb forms quite often.
I suggest it is worth the effort of learning how to use it.

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