Grammar check – lay low or lie low?

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I recently read a book in which many of the characters were advised to lay low because danger lurked and they didn’t want to be found out. This is a commonly used phrase and we all know what it means, but did you know that the correct advice would be to lie low?

I talked about the lowdown on lay and lie in a post a couple years ago, but not specifically about laying low or lying low.

Merriam-Webster says lay low is a transitive verb and that it means “to bring or strike to earth or to knock out of a fight or out of action.”

So the person on the other end of laying low is not exactly staying out of danger, maybe just the opposite!

LawProse offers more explanation and sites some examples from a documentary that got it wrong and a journalist who got it right.

Which way do you say it? If we all know what it means to lay low, should it matter? I like to follow the rules, so I vote for lie low. But maybe saying lay low is more authentic to a character in a book. I don’t know. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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39 thoughts on “Grammar check – lay low or lie low?

  1. I think it’ll depend on whether it’s used in dialogue or not. I’d tend to go with ‘lie low’, but if it fits a character to say ‘lay low’, that’d be okay in the same way that having one mispronounce something would be.

  2. When I write dialog it has to be similar to how people talk. I can’t imagine anyone giving advice like, “We all have to lie low.” To me, such a phrase would conjure up the idea of not telling the truth in a basement. We all say “lay low” and that’s how I would write it. Super post Barbara.

    1. Hi John. At first I was thinking more of the gramatically correct but the more I think about it the more I understand why writers would use “lay low” in dialogue. Thanks for stopping by to comment 🙂

    1. Hi Jacquie – maybe this will help: Lay’s most common meaning is “to place (something or someone) down in a flat position.” Lie’s corresponding meaning is “to be in a flat position on a surface.” Lay is transitive; it requires that the verb have an object; there has to be a thing or person being placed: Lay it down. Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive. It’s for something or someone moving on their own or something that’s already in position: You can lie down there. You can lie there all day.

      Thanks for the visit!

    1. Yes, I get that. At times you want to sound authentic and definitely not like the grammar expert. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jennifer. 🧡😊

  3. I’m endlessly fascinated by language usage and always learning. I’d say if used as dialogue, go with however you perceive the character would phrase it, but if used otherwise, go with ‘lie low.’

    1. I get that – I try to avoid the past tense of lay and lie. So I guess you can say I’m not living in the past! Thanks for reading and commenting, Jacqui!

  4. I think if it’s part of a character’s vocabulary than it stays. If in doubt, I always find a different phase as in “the parties involved were all advised to keep their heads down.” I try to go around obstacles instead of through them as grammar is such a sticky wicket.

  5. I love the variations and permutations (OK that maybe be tautology but it trips nicely) of language and how different communities and social groups use words and phrases.
    Until this post this difference had never occurred to me. It’s an interesting point and a good commentary on the subject.
    Thing is, I now have an interlude running through my head where two characters (whose mutual well-being is threatened) get into an argument as to which is the correct usage and the ramifications of using the wrong one…All I need now is a plot to fit this interlude into…..
    I’m thinking rom-com at present.

  6. There are some words in this language and how we use them that always confuse me. These are a couple of them. Fortunately for me, I can understand the simplicity of what is being said..:) But that’s not saying much..:)

    1. Hi George – in the end it’s about communicating so either way gets the point across. I like to get things right, but mostly I avoid the pitfalls as much as possible. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I hate the lay/lie thing so much I avoid using either word at all costs (unless someone is telling a lie). Thank the book gods for the thesaurus!

    1. I know exactly how you feel, Tammie. I usually avoid the pitfalls as much as possible. Thanks for visiting – it’s the weekend and time to relax!

  8. I always told my students: to lie is to recline; to lay is to place. “Lay low” sounds right to me because it feels like an idiomatic expression, which fits in the context of dialogue.

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