Wednesday, August 26, 2009

As I Lay Ranting . . .

Language adapts over time. Usage and spelling can be expected to change as we march through the centuries. I love the advent of new words, such as blog and Internet, because they represent such a wonderful new world. And I’m happy inflammable became flammable. But usage changing because people are in too much of a hurry to learn how to use correct grammar makes me feel sad . . . and mad.

Take LAY vs. LIE, for instance. It’s not as if one word is easier than the other to use.

Twenty years ago people said: “I’m going to lie down for a few minutes—will you take the cake out of the oven when the timer rings?” Now almost everyone says: "I’m going to lay down for a few minutes—will you get the door when the pizza arrives?"

Back then, if you had a dog, you’d say: Lie down! Now, most dog owners say: Lay down! I wonder how a dog who’s learned it the right way reacts when the command is given the wrong way. (Is that why Fido doesn’t mind anymore?)

When I began to hear TV commercials, sitcoms, and movies scripts substituting lay for lie, I knew this sloppiness of grammar was here to stay. I can take a deep breath and ignore it. But when I hear scripted dialogue written for period characters, such as FDR, Thomas Jefferson, or JP Morgan, this grammatical misuse drives me crazy! John Adams would never have said, “Lay down until dinner is ready.” Even Nixon knew better. Of course, if the story were about King James, the script could read, “Layeth thee down,” but I digress.

From Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style, this example: “The hen lays an egg; the llama lies down.” Lovely and simple.

TO LAY always takes an object (noun or pronoun)
Lay (present), laid (past), laid (past perfect), laying (participle/gerund)—simple conjugation for the transitive verb that ALWAYS takes an object.
Example present tense: “Please lay your coat on the guestroom bed.”
Example past tense: “By the time he laid his head on the pillow, he was asleep.”

TO LIE never takes an object (but frequently requires an adverb or adverbial phrase)
Lie (present), lay (past), lain (past perfect), lying (participle/gerund)—simple conjugation of intransitive verb that never takes an object.
Example present tense: “Your baby can lie here.”
Example past tense: “While your baby lay watching the mobile, she fell asleep.”

I know this rant puts me into the ‘fuddy duddy’ category of old women. So be it.


Old Gray Prof said...

You hit an error that sets my teeth on edge.
Just the other night, Charles Gibson, in ABC's documentary on Ted Kennedy's life, said, his body will "lay in state." I yelled at the tv set. A reporter for ABC made the same error this morning. I yelled at the tv set.
Another fuddy duddy.

Lynda said...

Yes, it's a jarring lapse, isn't it? And we hear it so often, too. I'm trying to make peace with that usage, since it's now so widespread, but I'm afraid that at heart I'm yet another fuddy-duddy.

Thank you for this post, Sallie.