offers hundreds of GMAT video lessons and practice questions. Go there now.
Sign up or log in to Magoosh GMAT.

GMAT Sentence Correction: Lie vs. Lay

Untangle the most confusing pair of verbs in the English language! 

To begin, a SC question from the Official Guide: question #95 from the OG13e (#96 in the OG 12e):

95) One of the primary distinctions between our intelligence with that of other primates may lay not so much in any specific skill but in our ability to extend knowledge gained in one context to new and different ones.

  1. between our intelligence with that of other primates may lay not so much in any specific skill but
  2. between our intelligence with that of other primates may lie not so much in any specific skill instead
  3. between our intelligence and that of other primates may lie not so much in any specific skill as
  4. our intelligence has from that of other primates may lie not so much in any specific skill as
  5. of our intelligence to that of other primates may lay not in any specific skill but

You may want to ponder this before reading this post.

 

Lie vs. Lay

Probably fewer than 5% of the general population really understand the difference between “to lie” and “to lay.”  This perplexing pair can make an appearance on 700+ GMAT Sentence Correction questions.  Here’s the full story.

 

To Lie

First of all, this verb is intransitive: that is to say, it does not take a direct object.  This verb, “to lie” means literally, “to recline”, as in “This afternoon, I will lie on the couch.”  By extension, it means “to be located”, and is often used to describe metaphorical landscapes: for example, “Her greatest strength lies in her prodigious memory.”  So far, relatively straightforward.

 

To Lay

This verb is transitive: that is to say, it regularly takes a direct object, and doesn’t really make sense without one.  This verb, “to lay”, means “to put or place, to put down”, as it “Lay that book on the table”, or “The workers will lay asphalt after the sewer pipes are installed.”  This one lends itself to metaphorical use far less frequently than does “to lie,” though one may “lay down one’s burden of cares.”  Notice: both literal and metaphorical uses take a direct object.  So far, so good.

 

The Mindbender: The Past Tense.

The past tense of “to lay” is “laid”, and the past participle is “laid.”  Today, I lay the books on the table.  Yesterday, I laid the books on the table.  I had laid the books on the table before I knew she wanted to set the table.

Now, here’s the one that blows people’s mind, because it is an example of the English language at its most bizarre.  The past tense of “to lie” is “lay.”  That’s right.  One the principle reasons folks confuse these two verbs is because the present tense of one is identical to the past tense of the other.   The past tense of “to lie” is “lay” and past participle is “lain.”  Today, I lie down.  Yesterday, I lay down.  Yesterday morning, I had lain on the bed before I washed the sheets.  The greatest contributions of the ancient Roman Empire lay in architecture and law.

The problem is, people see the sentence “I lay down” or any of these sentences with past tense “lay” and instead of correctly understanding it as the past tense of the verb “to lie”, they confuse “to lay” with “to lie.”  For example, Faulkner has a novel entitled As I Lay Dying, and I am sure very few people understand that statement as in the past tense.

 

A Bit of Prevarication

It may also add to the general confusion that the verb “to lie” (to recline) has a perfect homonym in the verb “to lie” (to tell an untruth).  Fortunately, this latter verb is perfectly regular — past tense “lied” and past participle “lied” — so it doesn’t contribute anything to the lie-lay miasma, except by indirect association, viz.: Right now, she lies to us about whether he lies down.  Yesterday, she lied to us about whether he lay down.

 

The explanation of the OG question

Now, as an example of a GMAT SC questions exploiting the lie/lay confusion, once again we have question #95 from the OG13e (#96 in the OG 12e):

 

95) One of the primary distinctions between our intelligence with that of other primates may lay not so much in any specific skill but in our ability to extend knowledge gained in one context to new and different ones.

  1. between our intelligence with that of other primates may lay not so much in any specific skill but
  2. between our intelligence with that of other primates may lie not so much in any specific skill instead
  3. between our intelligence and that of other primates may lie not so much in any specific skill as
  4. our intelligence has from that of other primates may lie not so much in any specific skill as
  5. of our intelligence to that of other primates may lay not in any specific skill but

 

First of all, we are talking about where this distinction is “located” in the metaphorical landscape of intelligence, so we need a form of the verb “to lie’, not a form of the verb “to lay.”  Furthermore, the entire sentence is in the present tense, so we need “may lie”, not “may lay.”  Thus, (A) & (E) are out right away.

Also, two important idioms.  The first: “distinction between X and Y” is the correct idiom, not “distinction between X from Y”,” nor “distinction X has from Y,” nor “distinction of X to Y.”  Only (C) has the correct idiom.

The second idiom: “not so much P as Q” is correct, not “not so much P but Q,” nor “not so much P instead Q.”  Only (C) & (D) get this idiom right.  Overall, the only answer totally correct and free of errors on all counts is answer choice (C).

Notice also: the one SC questions that explicitly addresses the “lie”/”lay” distinction happens to be about the nature of human intelligence itself.  Coincidence or not?  :)

 

Conclusion

If you understand the “lie”/”lay” distinction, you understand one of the finest points of grammar, one that is utterly lost on the vast majority of the population, including most of your fellow GMAT takers.  The secret of a truly elite performance on GMAT Sentence Correction lies in mastering grammar points as precise and as subtle as this one.

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

9 Responses to GMAT Sentence Correction: Lie vs. Lay

  1. Santy October 18, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    Awesome article! Thanks Mike!

    I have an off-topic question:

    You mentioned in the article –

    “5% of the general population really understand the difference … ”

    Shouldn’t it be “understanS”?
    “5% of general population”, is a quantity phrase, and since “population” is a collective noun, which is always singular, verb should also be singular.

    • Mike
      Mike October 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

      Dear Santy,
      Great question. :-) We’re on tricky ground here. Technically, yes, “population” is singular collective noun, but if you notice, the subject of that sentence is actually the word “fewer,” which is definitely plural, hence the plural verb. Now, should have used the plural, countable “fewer” with the singular collective noun “population,” implicitly referring to the many people in the population? This is acceptable, but you won’t see it on the GMAT. This is getting into subtler rhetorical regions that the GMAT SC scrupulously avoids. Grammar has several gray zones, and the GMAT is very careful to test folks only on the stuff that black & white.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  2. Sami October 21, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    The answer choice C doesn’t have “distinction between X and Y” in the bottom one. Thanks

    • Mike
      Mike October 22, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Dear Sami,
      Hmm. I guess I copied the question incorrectly. I’m not sure what happened. I just fixed it. I believe the question now is identical to what appears in the OG. Thanks for pointing this out.
      Mike :-)

  3. cumulonimbus February 27, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    Very nice article. Thanks.

    • Mike
      Mike February 28, 2013 at 9:40 am #

      Dear Cumulonimbus,
      You are quite welcome. Best of luck to you.
      Mike :-)

  4. Mike
    Mike June 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Yes, there’s often more than one way to narrow down the solution to a SC question, but the more options you have, the better prepared you’ll be on test day. Does that make sense?
    Mike :)

  5. Komal June 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    I solved it without knowing the difference b/w lie/lay but only on the basis of “not so much P as Q” :-)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. GMAT Sentence Correction: Lie vs. Lay | The GMAT Club - June 13, 2012

    [...] This post was written by Mike McGarry, GMAT expert at Magoosh, and originally posted here. [...]


Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!

Leave a Reply