John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Treason!

Last week the editor of the Maryland Gazette published a justification for using the construction may have laid down in the road on purpose. He published the sentence in that form because it was, he thought, clearer to his readers than have lain would have been. I referred briefly to authorities on the tangled history of lie and lay and said it was a defensible decision.

It turns out that I have turned my coat, betrayed the faith, gone over to the dark side. This from a reader:

John, this is too much.

First you said it's really OK to say "hopefully," and I didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

Then you said it's really OK to say "none were," and I didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

Then you said the AP Stylebook is not a very good guide, and I didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

Then you said Strunk & White is a poor guide, and I really didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

But now an editor writes "have laid" instead of "have lain," and you say it's a defensible decision?

No. I'm sorry. I can't accept that. Stop retreating. Defend the goddamn language already. It's your job.

--A former copy editor


Hopefully was used as a sentence adverb for generations until, about thirty years ago, it flared up as a vogue usage and drew the misplaced scorn of people who object reflexively to anything that comes into vogue. None has been used in both singular and plural sentences as long as there has been English, as the Oxford English Dictionary, any reputable language authority, and even the Associated Press Stylebook (!) will tell you. AP style is useful for regularizing capitalizations and abbreviations, but its advice on language is erratic and occasionally downright erroneous. Strunk and White is dated and inadequate; any serious student or writer would be better advised to buy and ponder Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

Now, as to lie and lay: I maintain the distinction between the two verbs in my own writing, I teach that distinction to my students each semester, and I would not have made the decision that the editor of the Maryland Gazette did. But when one takes the trouble to examine actual usage, discovering that even the ├╝ber-prescriptivist Bryan Garner holds that the battle is almost certainly lost, and noting that Mr. Hutzell of the Gazette sought language that would be familiar and comfortable to his readers, one can reasonably conclude that the decision was defensible, without endorsing it.

If you would turn your attention for a moment to the text of the story, consider these points:

That opening sentence of thirty-five words — An alcoholic homeless man who was run over and killed Tuesday night in Glen Burnie may have laid down in the road on purpose, an advocate for the homeless who knew him said this week — could have been rendered less wordy by omitting who knew him, which is established two paragraphs later in direct quotation, and this week, which, given the publication date of the paper, should be obvious.

The second sentence states that the homeless man was hit by an Ocean City man driving a van filled with his family members, but the detail about passengers, which would seem significant because of its placement high is the story, is not referred to subsequently. And the sentence says that the homeless man was killed after the van ran over him; I suspect that he may have died when the van ran over him.

The middle of the article is given over to a digression about homeless people hanging around a liquor store near the site of the accident, delaying further details of the accident for six paragraphs.

And the owner of the liquor store is granted anonymity for his comments. Why?

Letting have laid stet, along with She said she and several other homeless people in the area saw him lay in the road for several minutes before being hit, can certainly be challenged, but other elements in the story ought not be ignored. Editing should be more than quarreling about a disputable usage. It should involve curbing wordiness and inaccuracy, and organizing articles in a structure that makes sense to the reader. This article is not particularly bad; a reader can extract the information from it. But it is shoddier than it could be, and that shoddiness is representative of the decay of editing that I have been carrying on about for most of the span of this blog.



17 comments:

  1. What people need to understand, and I think you would agree, is that all of this is one man's opinion. You are not the Oracle at Delphi, as much as many readers of this blog "respect your knowledge." You are just as wrong as wrong can be on some distinctions and as right as rain on others. Some of your calls on style are as idiosyncratic as the next guy's--as is evidenced in your writing style. So "a former copy editor's" criticism that you are retreating from defense of the language may be true--but so what? Capricious and wrong-headed as you sometimes are, you're still as entertaining as hell. Keep up the great work.

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  2. Agreed, there are worse things about that lead than "laid" being used instead of "lain." Often people -- copy editors notably included -- can't see the forest of crappy writing for the trees of mistakes in grammar or style.

    But it's just idiotic for someone to defend using "laid" vs. "lain" in the name of clarity -- you think there'd be one reader who'd see "lain" in that sentence and have any trouble understanding it? As you point out, the problem with the sentence is that it's bogged down with a series of little phrases.

    While there might be occasions in which the correct past-tense use of "lay" might confuse those who know it only as a present-tense word, no such confusion exists with "laid"/ "lain." It was just a case of ignorance followed by silly rationalization.

    No lie.

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  3. Here's a quote from Winston Churchill that addresses two recent topics on your blog: the verb "lie," and the history of racism:

    "I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."

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  4. I think Strunk & White is still valuable for these two lessons alone. In college, they made the difference between an A paper and a C paper:

    1) Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Use the word "not" as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion. ... Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is.

    2) Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

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  5. Delightful, Mr. McIntyre. Thank you for chasing down the lay/lie distinction, a serious personal peeve of mine. When I was teaching, I used to TRY to end the controversy with the following: a hen lays eggs; she certainly doesn't lie eggs. But when the chicken crosses the road and gets hit by a car--or, perhaps, a van full of family members--the chicken lies in the road. It doesn't lay either at the time of the accident (well, probably) or therever more. The lesson about transitive and intransitive verbs always sailed right over students' heads, so I let it fall and lie. It has lain forlorn on the ground and seems doomed to stay there with the dead chicken. But the chicken story is, at least, a graphic mnemonic, if anyone is paying attention when one offers it.

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  6. It's time to let sleeping dogs lie, in or out of the manger.

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  7. The man in the street may very well have died *after* the van ran over him due to injuries sustained *when* the van ran over him. Absent medical opinion we cannot be sure.

    And why did the chicken cross halfway across the road? So she could lay it on the line.

    Retired in Elkridge

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  8. Yeah, Elk, but the story says "killed," not "died." If he was killed after the accident, who killed him? The nurse?

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  9. "After" is typical journalese (see headsup for lots of examples). It's all over the place, and often results in very funny sentences.

    And, Anonymous #1? Williams addresses both those points with much better evidence and advice than S&W, and doesn't confuse the reader with all the junk. Williams:

    Be concise: Cut meaningless and repeated words. Compress the meaning of a phrase into one or two words. Prefer affirmative sentences to negative ones.

    I give Williams to all my students, and encourage them to throw their S&W away.

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  10. More and more these days, I'm hearing "lay/laying" being used where "lie/lying" would be correct. I'm starting to wonder whether people are afraid to use "lie" because they want to avoid potential confusion given its "falsehood" definition.

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  11. Since when does English need any defense? It's been around for at least a thousand years at this point, has changed significantly in that time, and amazingly, no catastrophes have happened. What's so special about this point in time that it requires the language be kept static? Think about whether the fence you wish to build around English is meant to keep people out or keep the language in.

    Free English!

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  12. Laid/lain is nothing compared to this sentence on page 27 of "Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles" (The Overlook Press, 2008):

    "Behind them lied the sandy desolation of the Mojave high desert."

    It's not a typo for "lies"; the rest of the paragraph is in the past tense.

    To be crystal-clear: "Smogtown" is not a newspaper story edited under deadline pressure; it's a hardcover book presumably subjected to the usual rounds of copyediting and proofreading. (This error is only one of many in the book. I'm keeping score.)

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  13. The most helpful writing advice I have heard comes from C.S. Lewis (I believe!), who taught me to stop using words like "amazingly," "fascinating" or "scary" and describe events in such a way that the reader feels amazed, fascinated or scared.

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  14. Irregulars tend to become regular; we complain only about those that do it while we're watching. When did anyone demand the return of holp. crew, or flang?

    Also, the conflation of the transitive and intransitive pair-members is happening with more than lie/lay. Google "mist raises" or "rise prices" for a quick look at that pair.

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  15. Defend the language from . . . what, exactly? Change? Regularization? Are these in fact things that we need to defend against? Lay was used to mean "lie" as early as 1300, and it wasn't until 1770 that anyone thought this was a problem.

    It certainly doesn't affect clarity, so this isn't an issue of a so-called important distinction being lost. Rather, it seems that the only ill effect one suffers from using lay to mean lie is the condemnation of others. So this isn't really about defending the language, but rather about upholding a set of metalinguistic social values. If people want to do that, that's their choice, but I think it's important to recognize the difference.

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  16. I demand the return of 'flang!'

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