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Here lies ...

A complaint from a reader of The Sun.

Headline: MARC train strikes and kills man laying on the tracks

The headline should conclude with "lying on the tracks." It's correct in the article.

Grrrrrr. There are a number of galling things about this error. First, it is so elementary. Second, the correct word was right there in the first paragraph of the article. Third, and most discouraging, that headline went through the hands of the copy editor who wrote it, the copy editor who checked the electronic version and the copy editor who saw it on a page proof.

But it should come as no particular surprise. My students at Loyola, mainly juniors and seniors in journalism or English, pretty much look blank when I start carrying on about lie and lay. They are accustomed to hearing people say that they were laying down, and the usage is equally familiar to them in print.

The lengthy entry on the subject in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that lay and lie were used interchangeably as intransitives well into the 18th century but that a distinction was then codified in textbooks, to limited success. "If the grammarians and the schoolmasters and the schoolmarms and the usage writers have succeeded in largely establishing the transitive-intransitive distinction between lay and lie in standard discursive prose, they have not done so well in speech." As noted.

Merriam-Webster’s continues to say bluntly that the distinction has become "a social shibboleth — a marker of class and education." But if educated people —and I am not about to get into a discussion of whether the students who are awarded degrees at the school where I teach can be called educated — no longer observe the distinction, then its utility even as a social shibboleth is compromised.

We may well be close to the point at which the two-century-old distinction, which has been eroding in common usage, is finally effaced. But there is still that remnant of English speakers on whom laying for lying grates, and copy editors are expected to be aware of their preferences.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:32 AM | | Comments (6)


It is often illuminating to discover that language "problems" that some like to attribute to slipping standards and shoddy education actually go back for centuries. Robert Burchfield had a nice and gentle way of citing historical sources (e.g. "confusion" about apostrophes, as shown in the works of Addison, as does David Crystal (e.g. the railings of 18th-C grammarians about the slipping standards of their own day vis-a-vis the purity of a mere two generations earlier). A dip into Pepys likewise reveals his varying use of "have drank" and "have drunk," and the much-maligned "between you and I" has been around for centuries.

Probably the real measure of when it's time to give up on shibboleths is when people don't even understand you any more when you use supposedly correct forms. We're not there yet with "lie" and "lay," but it seems that only people who have been explicitly taught the difference between them still know that there are even two verbs. Propping up a usage through the artificial means of making native speakers go to school to learn it suggests a usage that has a limited lifetime ...


Not to mention "I eat" as the past tense. Was there even a pronunciation difference between "eat" and "ate" in his time?

One more quick thought from the absurdist contingent -- at the end of a day's worth of slogging away at explaining the State-Pentagon "flush tax" deal of last month.


What is he was upright, but hit in the very act of mendacity? The headline would do equally well.

Since men are not hens, we are spared any confusion where "laying" is concerned.

lie/lay is so '90s! Have you noticed that Gen X always uses "me" in sentences like

"Me and my cousin got tickets to the opera Tuesday"?


That's hardly a GenX fashion -- that's been around, like, forever. Here's a list from AHD on Pronoun Usage That Offend People:

They cite "between you and I" from Shakespeare, heh.

good site

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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