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.