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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Now I LAY me down to sleep…

Mt. Ranier in summerPostcard: “Lay down, Fido, lay down.” Why your dog doesn’t mind: he doesn’t understand bad grammar.

I was watching the evening news yesterday, one of the major networks, mind you, a prominent local affiliate station, one that frequently touts its winning the coveted Edward R. Murrow award for excellence in journalism. A promo for one segment led with the teaser “woman lays down on freeway.” Friends of The Ripple, I know there is grave news out there, ponderous news. The planet is in chaos: global warming, President Putin has his eyes on Syria; there’s ISIS; refugees are fleeing the war torn Middle East in droves; and according to recent polls, the poster boy for Rogaine is looking to the White House for a place to hang his hairpiece and leads the polls. But I’ve long maintained it’s the little stuff that sticks in your craw, wears you down, frays nerves and chips away at your serenity.

Slovenly English, the bane of the retired English teacher, one who for years did battle with high school sophomores, teaching them English as a second or foreign language…the pedagogical phoenix rises from behind the desk to address an issue of grammar. Or perhaps I’m channeling Mrs. Greaves, my revered eighth grade English teacher whose use of mnemonics still resonates six decades later. “The old hen LAID an egg,” she said, when during “language” the matriarch of my elementary school set the class to wrestling with the English verbs LIE/LAY.

Yes, it’s like fingernails across the chalkboard when I hear the forms of these two words confused…and their misuse is epidemic. Now, class, listen up (there will be a test). The verb LIE (present tense LIE/LIES; past tense LAY/LAYS; and LAIN [forms used with HAVE/HAS]) Webster’s defines as “to rest or recline in a horizontal position.” One doesn’t LAY down, he/she LIES on the ground, the bed, the table, the roof, his/her back. A golf ball coming to rest in the rough or a bad spot on the green, takes a “bad lie,” not a “bad lay.” In short, it “rests” in a challenging spot for the duffer. Newcomers to the Valley may check out the “lay of the land,” its geography, terrain…how the land “lies.”

The verb LAY (present tense LAY/LAYS; past tense LAID; and LAID [forms used with HAVE/HAS]) according to Webster LAY means “to place or put down; to put forth or deposit,” as per the erudite Alma Greaves: “The chicken LAYS an egg.” LAY…I think of the Richard Brautigan poem: “Lay the Marble Tea” in which LAY refers to the placing or depositing of the utensils and vessels used in the ritual of conducting the formal English tea. Class, now remember: LIE is used when one or something changes position, most usually from the vertical to the horizontal as in “lie down,” or “lie on some horizontal surface.” Use LAY when someone/something does something to something: “Doc, LAY your cards on the table”: Doc (someone) LAYS (does something to (cards: something). And class, don’t let the fact that present tense LAY is the same as the past tense of LIE throw you .

Yes, LIE/LAY…whatever…so what, right? But as I’d lecture my students ad nauseam: “Language is a great impression maker. People will and do judge you by what you say and how you say it. Like it or not, ‘tis a fact.” First, slovenliness in speech, then what: not returning your shopping cart to its corral, throwing that fast food wrapper out the window, wearing pajamas when you shop…on to petite larceny, proceeding to felonious conduct, next sociopathic behavior and then landing a spot on the Ten Most Wanted list?

And class, just before the bell, let me leave you with the thought for the day…and this post, from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition:

“Some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do so slowly: many people have invested effort in keeping lay and lie distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.”

So much for the grammar refresher. For now, I’ll let the matter lie. Or is that lay?

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  1. One is never too old to benefit from a good grammar lesson, especially those of us who weren't inclined to pay close attention to grammar when we were sophomores in high school.

    1. For some reason you don't seem to be the type of student, sophomore or upperclassman, who would have laid his head on his desk and slept through a grammar lesson. Stay tuned for a lesson in the proper use of reflexive pronouns...and thanks for reading. TMJ