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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Lay that burden down

The Baltimore Sun

One of the readers of yesterday’s post on the increasingly rapid decay of whom in general usage asked the inevitable question: “What's your thinking on lie/lay?”

From direct experience over more than two decades with undergraduates in Loyola University Maryland’s Communication Department, I can tell you that students do not hear the distinction, even the smart ones. It is not a part of their idiolects, in which the past tense and past participle of lie, “to recline,” are laid. Some of them can, with difficulty, be coerced into briefly maintaining the lie/lay distinction to get a passing grade from a fussbudget instructor, but I suspect that they immediately revert.

The two verbs have been blurred in English for centuries, and the schoolroom distinction I still reluctantly teach is, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, mainly “a social shibboleth—a marker of class and education.” MWDEU points out the durability of the shibboleth by citing Dwight Bolinger’s observation that “if you have invested some effort in learning the distinction, you will not want to admit that you have wasted your time.”

Lie/lay is for practical purposes, gone in ordinary speech, and the remaining question is how much longer to hold on to it in formal writing, as Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage and Jeremy Butterfield’s Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage recommend. I am not optimistic about its survival there, though I am one of the dwindling band of editors enforcing it, and I am increasingly sure that it is not a hill I care to die on.

Now, before pursed-lipped comments about “correct” and “proper” English can be filed, or Little Dutch Boy warnings that if one brick in the dike is gone all Holland is lost, along with complaints that I am letting down the side, let me say this: I have not abandoned editing.

There is still plenty to be done. Whenever a sentence begins with a singular subject, especially a gerund, and contains an intervening phrase with a plural noun, writers are drawn to the plural form of the verb like moths to a flame. Confusion of homonyms is rife. The struggle to maintain plurals, possessives, and plural possessives is unending. Prolixity imposes on the reader’s patience.

I am thus relieved if I can drop some editorial dog whistle like over/more than or comprise/compose to spend my limited time on things that actually matter. Increasingly, I don’t see that who/whom and lie/lay matter all that much.

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