A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

You Lie!

When it comes to language, I side with the descriptivists -- those who acknowledge that the English language is constantly in a process of change -- rather than with the prescriptivists -- those who believe that there are certain rules that must be followed even though hoi polloi have abandoned them. (Notice that I didn't say "the hoi polloi," which I have been taught is equivalent to saying "the the people." There are, after all, a few rules that I cling to, perhaps because knowing them gives me a slight ego boost. Like, I also know that "kudos" means "praise" and is therefore singular, and that there's no such thing as "a kudo." Except that the descriptivist in me recognizes that eventually there will be.)

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that word usage is a slippery thing, and that really it all comes down to what sort of audience you're addressing. For example, I fully accept the use of "hopefully" as a sentence modifier, as in "Hopefully, he will be here soon." But because I also know that there are a lot of people who insist that it's slovenly usage, I tend to avoid it, and write "We hope that ..." or "I hope that ..." instead.

I know, too, that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole, so I'll never write "John, Mary, and Edgardo comprise the rules committee" -- or worse, "The rules committee is comprised of John, Mary, and Edgardo" -- even though most people don't make the distinction.

I even avoid writing "He was disinterested in the conversation" when what is meant is that he was bored by or indifferent to it. I was taught that "disinterested" meant "impartial" or "unbiased," and not, as is probably meant here, "uninterested." (In fact, "disinterested" used to mean "uninterested," but then the prescriptivists got hold of it and decided the usage was improper.)

So I'm not such a stickler that when I run across a sentence modified by a "hopefully," or a composing "comprise," or a bored "disinterested," or even a "the hoi polloi" or a "kudo," I shudder and flinch. (Well, maybe inwardly, at least on the last one.) But there's one usage change that still grates: the disappearing intransitive "lie," as in, "I am going to lie down." Maybe it comes from having to chant in English class what used to be called the principal parts: "Lie, lay, lain, lying" and "Lay, laid, laid, laying." And from hearing the supercilious question, "Are you a chicken?" asked of anyone foolish enough to say, "I am going to lay down."  

The distinction between "lie" and "lay" is vanishing, and an intransitive "lay" is winning. I was reading a Lee Child Jack Reacher novel today, and read:
Reacher laid down again. 
And later,
Reacher laid back, stayed relaxed, stayed casual.
But oddly, quite a few pages later, a character says,
I've lain awake a hundred nights going over it.

"Lee Child" is actually a Brit named Jim Grant, so apparently the confusion over "lie" and "lay" isn't confined to this side of the Atlantic. And the confusion seems to be so great that the traditional intransitive "lain"  can coexist with the emerging intransitive "laid" within the same author's mind. (I once encountered an otherwise highly literate writer who was so confused on the "lie, lay" issue that he wrote, "I lied down for a nap.")

I wish the confusion didn't exist, and that we could just accept intransitive "lay, laid, laid, laying" at least on an equal footing with "lie, lay, lain, lying." On the other hand, the confusion once led to my employment, in the job that turned me from a failed academic to a moderately successful journalist. After not receiving tenure at the university where I was teaching, I applied to a local magazine for a copy-editing position. What got me the job was finding the sentence, "There is garbage laying in the alleys," and pointing out that it was incorrect. The sentence was in a column written by the magazine's publisher.