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Leave it lay

When I first began teaching editing a Loyola College in Baltimore (now Loyola University), I was straightforward about grammar and usage, after the manner of nearly all the textbooks on copy editing: These are the standard errors, the common misuses, the common confusions; mark them and sin no more. You have the Law and the Prophets; what more do you need?

Over time I have developed a more nuanced approach, and now my handouts and godly admonitions identify common errors, misuses, and confusions, but also superstitions to abandon, and points of grammar and usage that are in transition. There are distinctions, I tell my undergraduates, that you should maintain only in the most formal contexts or for the fussiest audiences, and that you might as well ignore elsewhere.

Anatoly Liberman, writing at the Oxford University Press OUPblog, gets at the issue:

Discussing lie and lay for the umpteenth time would be even less productive than beating ~ flogging a dead horse. In some areas, the distinction has been lost, and so be it. English has lost so many words in the course of its history that the disappearance of one more will change nothing. So lay back and relax. The same holds for dived/dove, sneaked/snuck, and the rest. I only resent the idea that some tyrants wielding power make freedom loving people distinguish between lie and lay. Editors and teachers should be conservative in their language tastes. In works of fiction, characters are supposed to speak the way they do in real life, but in other situations it may be prudent to lag behind the latest trend as long as several variants coexist.

I feel obliged every semester to go over lie and lay, but the blunt fact is that nearly all my students are just baffled. They do not hear a distinction; they do not encounter it in speech or in much of the writing they encounter. I might as well be standing at the blackboard telling them that they will be graded on how well they grasp the middle voice in Greek.

I would much prefer to tell them that the lie/lay distinction with which their grandparents were tormented in school is over, and that, moreover, everyone/they has finally carried the day and we can all go on to discuss more interesting points of usage. But out there, still, I sense lurking the readers bringing down a metal-edged ruler on the knuckles or reaching for a rattan cane to administer six of the best.

I have only so much time with them in a semester, and I have to counteract the bad teaching about language that most of them have had, to indicate the points that matter most to literate readers, and to show them how to gauge how the levels vary by audience, publication, and occasion. So, you viewers-with-alarm and we-need-an-English-Academy peevers and when-I-was-a-boy harumphers out there, how about giving it a rest?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:38 AM | | Comments (13)


A logical approach for the real world.

The point you make is indeed true, however the example of lie and lay is a curious one. In Australia, the word lie not only survives, but has not become confused with lay in the slightest. The two retain their distinct meanings more or less unabated, forming a sharp contrast to the developments in the US. I would imagine the same would be true of most other English-speaking countries and those learning English as a second language outside the US.

You know why as well as I do, Mr McI - because editors should be conservative in their language tastes and because many readers do still hear a distinction. Me included.

Dear Picky: If you absolutely won't leave it lay, then can you at least let it lie?

Well, I can set it down, sit it down and seat it. Will that do?

"they do not encounter it in speech or in much of the writing they encounter"

they do not encounter it ... in much of the writing they encounter.

Too (or two) close encounters?

I still intend to let sleeping dogs - including my own - lie.

Tom's comment above is good to read. I'd read about this confusion on US sites, but didn't think I'd encountered it here in Australia.

50 years ago my 8th grade English teacher made sure that her students all knew the difference between lie and lay. Eighth grade! Surely it is not too much to ask a professional editor to use the words properly.

Discussion (actually, debunking) of Tom's comment:

@John20723: You've really missed the whole point of this article, haven't you?

Raise and rise are going the same way. "They'll rise prices" and "mist is raising from the river", for instance.

It's happening. In fact, it's happened.

You might be interested to read this article (which is actually from a science-based blog) about the evolution of irregular verb tenses (all those verbs that can't end in "-ed") and how they are slowly dying out over time.

Not Exactly Rocket Science: The evolution of the past tense

So today I come across this, from someone being quoted in a newspaper story: "I just lied it down." Talk about confusion worse confounded.

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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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