I was trying to create a sentence about a mistake and Iwas trying to be thorough using the word precisely.

The sentence was:

My mistake was precisely in that part of the text...

When I used the Google Translate to get a similar sentence from Portuguese to English, I had a suggestion to use the word lay instead of was.

The suggested sentece was:

My mistake lay precisely in that part of the text...

Since I not found any tips in the dictionary, my question is: can I uselay instead of was in any situation? if not, how can I know when use this substitution?


1 Answer 1


This is a very tricky issue! Firstly, the verb in question is not actually lay, it's lie - "lay" just happens to be the past tense of "lie" in this case, just like was is the past tense of is. The definition of lie that applies here is

  1. to be placed or situated

That is, your problem was placed, or situated, or located within that part of the text. So the substitution is actually very good in this case, because "my problem was in that part of the text" is very similar to "my problem was located in that part of the text".

But can you use it in any case? No. Firstly, clearly "is placed in" is obviously not always a good substitute for "is". For example,

I am six feet tall

is obviously not the same as

I am located six feet tall (which doesn't make any sense)

and therefore you can't say

I lie six feet tall

Even when it refers to location, you can't always use it - for example,

I am in Rome

is a perfectly good sentence which means "My current location is 'Rome'", but

I lie in Rome

is very confusing, because it sounds more like "I lie down in Rome" or "I tell lies in Rome"; we just don't use lie as a general-purpose replacement for "is at this place". Using lie to mean placed or located is more of a poetic or metaphorical usage. Think of X lies in Y as something like "If you looked at Y, you would see the source or origin of X."

If this seems confusing, don't worry - lie and lay have many meanings, and are notoriously confusing even for native speakers.

  • 1
    Apparently, confusion lies at the heart of many things (according to Google, about 2,930 minus any duplicates). I'd love to have found one for ...English, language, semantics, meaning or similar, but sadly no-one seems to have committed such a sentiment to virtual print yet. Interestingly, Google's top "autocomplete" for my the devil lies is ...in the detail. Still, at least I found a single the devil lies through his teeth. Nov 3, 2016 at 18:46
  • @FumbleFingers in AmE (as far as I know) it's, "The Devil is in the details", but I like "lies" better, because of the double meaning.
    – Andrew
    Nov 3, 2016 at 19:25
  • 1
    @Andrew: I've no particular preference between is and lies, but checking NGrams for non-case-sensitive Devil is in the details,Devil lies in the details,Devil is in the detail,Devil lies in the detail (the actual link is too long to post here) it seems the main US/IK distinction is that AmE almost always pluralises details and doesn't use lies. And although is is more common everywhere, it turns out that singular detail is actually the most common version in BrE (but only by a slim margin). Nov 4, 2016 at 15:44
  • I strongly disagree that here the word lay is appropriate. Mistakes in translated texts are at some point in the text, in some sentence etc. Read the OP's original again. No translator writing about his/her own mistakes would say: My mistake lay [at some point in the text].
    – Lambie
    Jun 18, 2019 at 21:51

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