Two Bites from the Pie in the Sky Grammar Patrol

On Getting Laid
Chickens lay eggs. People lie down.

If I have to read any more sentences with people “laying down,” I will be forced to lay an egg. Or lie down with a migraine. “Lie” is an intransitive verb that indicates situation or position. “Lay” is a transitive verb–i.e. where subject causes something to be put into place, as in eggs, or railroad ties, or “Come lay down your burden…” Or, if you’re in Georgia, “Lay some of that pie on me, would ya, darlin’?”

The confusion arises because “lay” is also the past tense of the intransitive lie. “Yesterday I lay down in the middle of the road, thinking about a long vacation in the hospital.”

So to avoid errors, such as this quote from a novel: “…he must be still laying (sic) in the snow, dreaming…” ask first, doing or doing (something) (to), then present or past tense? Or simply, laying what?

It Isn’t It’s Fault, It’s Its Fault
Several weeks ago I was so shocked (and excited) to see this common error in an electronic message from The New Yorker that I had to call several friends and rant and rave for a few minutes. (Not that I hold grudges against their poetry editor or anything.) It’s all a matter of meaning and one tiny apostrophe.

The word “its” is technically an adjective, the possessive form of the pronoun “it.” (“What’s the point of this article and its pixelated photo?”) The contraction of “it” plus “is” or “has” gives us the famous “it’s” with the apostrophe. “It’s” in the wrong context is probably the most common writing error in English. To avoid, just think is there a verb in here or not?

We all write so quickly now, producing more content than ever. We rarely enjoy the opportunity of two proofreading passes for accuracy. And we’ve all been humiliated by silly errors such as leaving the subject out of a sentence, or substituting a homonym because it’s 11 pm and we’re exhausted. Plus, English spellings are historically bizarre. But wouldn’t you rather have a rich, complex language influenced by multiple cultures, with a gigantic vocabulary (and admittedly inconsistent spelling rules), than a logically consistent but limited array of words?

“Perfect Standard English” is probably pie in the sky. Nevertheless, we can aim for precision. Or we’ll end up sounding like machines spouting acronyms, jargon, and limited-range idiomatic phrases at each other. I prefer the depth and haunting beauty of good old complicated English.

(First published in LinkedIn Pulse, September 2015)

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