I am a little confused as to what the differences in meaning and/or in usage between these three word choices are (all in their intransitive forms).

Merriam-webster defines them as follows:

Lie back: to lean backward against a support

Lean: to incline, deviate, or bend from a vertical position (it doesn't have an entry for lean back)

Recline: to lean or incline backwards

1 Answer 1


To lean {on|against} X means to rely on X to keep you upright - generally, while you are standing or sitting outside of a chair.

To lie back would apply if you are about 45 degrees or less in orientation, and generally means your back is going to be relying on something else for support. A doctor may ask you to lie back on an examination chair, which flattens out where you are then lying down.

Recline means to "lie back" in a sitting position, and can strongly suggest you are on a sofa or other seat with a back, that is not flat enough for you to be considered "lying" when on it.

  • How about lean back? Does it always imply reclining on something other than a chair?
    – narengi
    Jan 20, 2015 at 16:39
  • When you lean, you can lean forward, to the left, or any arbitrary direction. So that's just specifying the direction you are leaning. Another way to put this: "Lie" means you are more or less flat on a surface, "recline" means you are sitting, and "lean" is what you'd use if whether you are sitting, standing, or lying doesn't matter.
    – LawrenceC
    Jan 20, 2015 at 18:30

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