Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oops. Did I say that?

When you self-identify as the Grammar Queen, there's a lot of pressure every time you put pen to paper or open your mouth. You see, I know that even in that sentence, I should have said, "When one self-identifies as the Grammar Queen, there's a lot of pressure every time one puts pen to paper ... "

Using the word "one" instead of "you" in that sentence sounds formal and impersonal. Like you, for ease of speaking, I prefer a more familiar and casual style. (Did you catch that one? I said, "Like you, I prefer ..." I should, more correctly, have said, "As you do, I prefer ...")

More correctly. Am I even allowed to say that? Isn't "correct" like "unique" – an absolute that doesn't accept a comparison modifier?

I hasten to assure you that I don't skulk about with a discreet notebook, jotting down every mistake I hear and I don't openly correct anyone in conversation. (Well, maybe lovingly, now and then, in the privacy of home.)

There are degrees of difficulty in the rules of word use and some are much more easily ignored and forgiven than others.

Which brings me to the beautiful verb, "to lie," with all its lovely forms: lie, lay, laid, lain ... I admit, it's one of the more difficult ones. But a few days ago, when a friend of mine twittered, "But for now we are young; Let us lay in the sun; And count every beautiful thing we can see," I couldn't ignore it. I responded to her tweet: "Let us lie in the sun!"

She's an editor too and she knew it was wrong but, said she, "I love the song!"

In this case, I'm not forgiving at all. As I told her, I can sometimes accept a glaring grammatical error if it's for rhyming or scanning purposes. In this case, it could so easily have been changed and the song would not have suffered.

I'm afraid learning to love this song is a musical experience I'll have to forego.


  1. For many of us, there's one grammatical error that really makes us twitch. Lay/lie is mine. A few years ago, in a fit of twitchiness, I wrote to a newspaper when I saw this photo caption: "A balloon lays on the street after it hit a pole...." Here's the letter:

    What is it laying, an egg? Now that would be something.

    My heart lies heavy when I read of people, animals or balloons laying down, unless of course they’re laying down their burdens, which we can all hope to do some day, even though a floating balloon’s burden is lighter than air or it wouldn’t be floating. Life can be a muddle sometimes.

    If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go lie down in a darkened room and lay a cool cloth across my brow. And think of eggs. Is a laying hen lying down or sitting?

    The letter was published, and "lay" and "lie" were generally correct in the paper after that (to the editor's credit and my surprise). A friend who's a university English instructor used it in her class, which gave me heart.

    Among the Canadian population, though, I'd guess that 90% now say, "I'm laying down," and (past tense), "I laid down." This month a friend of mine used the expression "Let sleeping dogs lie," then "corrected" it to "lay." Sigh. I feel old...

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