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Words Feb. 3

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In the Arkansas Times, of all places, a pundit wrote about “the final part of the Supreme Court’s order that lays unaddressed.” Charles Clapp called to express disappointment in both the columnist (“He’s usually pretty reliable”) and the Times as an institution. “Or have people just given up observing the distinction between lay and lie, between transitive and intransitive verbs?” he asked sadly. Some of us haven’t given up, Mr. Clapp, and if we’d gotten our hands on that column before it appeared in print, it would have said “the final part of the Supreme Court’s order that lies unaddressed.” In standard English, lay (“put, place, set down”) is a transitive verb; it requires an object. Lay your cards on the table. Lie (“to be in, or move into, a reclining position, or on or onto a flat surface”) is intransitive — it takes no object. Lie down and get some rest. There’s always been some confusion over lie and lay — partly because the past tense of lie is lay — and it may be worsening. Al Dexter got it right in the 1940s when he wrote and sang, “Lay that pistol down, babe, lay that pistol down. Pistol-packin’ mama, lay that pistol down.” Bob Dylan got it wrong in the ’60s with “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.” (Though getting it right in that context would have sounded funny. “Lie, lady, lie” sounds like something else entirely.) The Cambridge Guide to English Usage says that the use of lay and its past tense, laid, in place of lie/lay is already common in conversation, and predicts that lay/laid will eventually prevail even in written, edited English. But it hasn’t happened yet. This seems to be a week for tripping up the Times. Jim von Tungeln saw “The Quapaw Quartet is comprised of violinists Eric Hayward and Meredith Maddox, violist Lin Chang and cellist Melita Hunsinger.” He writes: “I was taught that comprise means ‘include’ or ‘contain.’ [The Quapaw Quartet comprises violinists Eric Hayward and Meredith Maddox, violist Lin Chang and cellist Melita Hunsinger.] Is comprised of a usage that has achieved acceptance through its pure doggedness?” I say no. The Oxford Dictionary and Webster’s Third say yes. Who’re you going to believe?

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