Friday, September 11, 2009

You lie, you lay, you have lain

Thanks to a dispatch from a reader of this blog, I learned that a reader of the Maryland Gazette complained about the grammar of the opening sentence in a recent article:

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.

The complaint, that laid should have been lain, prompted a defense from Rick Hutzell, the editor and, he says, “the ultimate arbiter of grammar and spelling for the newspaper.”* In his defense, Mr. Hutzell wrote:

“... I made a conscious decision to use laid in the lead, or opening paragraph, and headline instead of the grammatically correct lain.

“While the transitive verb was called for, Strunk and White note in ‘The Elements of Style’ that laid can be used in colloquial or slang speech. Because lain is almost never used in common conversation, I felt its presence in the lead paragraph and headline would have been a stopper for most readers. I ran this by another editor, who agreed.”

Permit me to express regret that a fellow ultimate aribiter should use Strunk and White as a prop for his authority and, even more regrettably, confuse transitive and intransitive.

Perhaps if the revenues of the Maryland Gazette hold up, Mr. Hutzell could lay out $45 for the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage,** which would help him sort out transitive and intransitive and give him a little more support for his decision on laid and lain.

Bryan Garner explains that the nonstandard use of forms of lay in place of lie is very common in speech and that some commentators insist that it is not even an error. “But make no mistake,” he says, “using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.”***

On his new “language-change index” feature, Mr. Garner rates laid for a past tense of lie as “virtually universal” but “opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.”

There you go, Mr. Hutzell, a defensible decision but a faulty explanation. It is never easy being an ultimate arbiter of grammar and spelling.

And catching up ...

Did you miss me during the past week? Preoccupied with new class preps and a series of freelance editing gigs, I lacked the time to post.**** So:

Item: Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word is formally published. Maybe you say, “DILLIGAF,” a term you will find therein.

Item: On Twitter, @henryhitchings is marking the run-up to the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson’s birth (September 18) with a tweet-a-day quote. The first was Johnson’s decisive riposte to the hoary artists’ complaint that non-artists aren’t qualified to criticize their work:

“You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.”

And subsequently, a salutary reminder to those of us who quibble over words:

“No word is ... intrinsically meaner than another; our opinion therefore of words ... depends wholly upon accident and custom.”

Item: Look at Headsup: The Blog for some prime examples of tortured journalistic syntax. Then ask yourself whether sheer bad writing might have something to do with the plight of newspapers.

Item: Belatedly but appropriately, the British government, in the person of the prime minister, has apologized for the unconscionable persecution of Alan Turing, which drove him to suicide. As a bonus, as Language Log notes, it is an illustration of a proper apology.

*I, too, was once such a tinpot authority. Ah, the bygone palmy days.

**About which, more in a future post.

***I am not a reader of the Maryland Gazette and so cannot comment on its degree of refinement or that of its readers.

****Dearly as I love you all, the freelance clients pay me, and you do not.


  1. Sorely missed.

    Missed sorely.

    Sore; missed.

    Missed; sore.

    Missed sore.

    Welcome back.

  2. Although I agree that such an 'authority' as ‘The Elements of Style’ is worthless in most cases, citing it may be worthwhile in this case. It is highly likely that to the sorts of pedants that write complaining letters to newspapers S & W is treated as a sort of bible. He (it is usually a he) will very likely have never heard of Bryan Garner.

  3. Bad writing is the primary reason why I dislike most newspapers. I don't know what they teach in journalism school, but it doesn't seem to be effective writing.

  4. 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

  5. And Jonathon, before you complain about bad writing, you need to permanently eliminate the phrase "reason why" from your vocabulary. It's redundant and ignorant. Just say "reason."

  6. It would have been confusing if Rep. Wilson had hollered at the president, "You lay!"

  7. I thought it was "Let sleeping dogs lie," and "He laid the vase on the table."(Never mind the vulgar use of the word "laid." Anyone can try to be a comedian.) And I would have been delighted if Rep Wilson had erupted with,"You shall have lain."

  8. The defenders of "lain" have well laid out their case. My vote shall lie with them.
    India ink

    Language evolves. It's silly to pretend that it doesn't.

  10. I'm not a native speaker, and even I know it's a mistake.
    Open your dictionary, Mr. Hutzell.