Happy National Grammar Day!

Lay vs. Lie: Oh, the Confusion! Oh, the Humanity!

This Friday, March 4, is National Grammar Day. I couldn’t possibly pass it up without writing a few words for this blog, which is ostensibly about grammar.

Garner’s Modern American Usage claims that “one of the most widely-known of all usage errors” is using lay for lie. This confusion is nearly universal, and whenever I discover a writer or speaker who uses lay and lie correctly, I nearly faint from the sheer wonder of it. It is hardly overstated to say that the correct use of lay and lie is the shibboleth of the educated writer or speaker. (Now there’s a biblical allusion for you biblical allusionists.)

First, let’s have some definitions. Again, Garner says, “lie (= to recline, be situated) is intransitive—it can’t take a direct object <he lies on his bed>. But lay (= to put down, arrange) is always transitive—it needs a direct object <please lay the book on my desk>.”

Let me partially inflect these two verbs and then give several examples (I’ll save the present and past participles for another time):

            Verb               Present          Past               

            1. lay (v.t.)      lay                   laid    

            2. lie (v.i.)      lie                    lay

Got it? Still with me? (Just nod your head.) Here are some examples of when to use lay (#1).

Lay (present tense): “Honey, please lay the baby (direct object) down for his nap.”

Lay (past tense): “She laid the baby (direct object) in his crib for his nap.”

Lay (present tense): “Let us lay our heads (direct object) on our pillows and get some sleep.”

Lay (past tense): “We laid our heads (direct object) on our pillows.”

Here’s a trick to help you remember: When you mean “put,” use “lay.” When you are doing something to something, use “lay.” You never use lay to describe lying down (unless it’s past tense—see the chart). Here are some examples of when to use lie (#2):

Lie (present tense): “Sheila went to the beach to lie on the sand.”

Lie (past tense): “When Sheila went to the beach last weekend, she lay on the sand all day.” (Note, the past tense of lie is not laid. You use laid only when talking about putting something somewhere—“The Ladies Guild laid out a feast for all the revelers to enjoy.”)

Lie (present tense): “It’s time for me to lie down and take my nap.”

Lie (past tense): “I lay (not laid) in bed for two hours this afternoon.”

Lie (present tense): “Come here, Spot, and lie down. Lie down, Spot!”

Lie (past tense): “Spot is such a good dog. She lay on her bed all through dinner.”

Lie (present tense): “The bandit decided to lie low until the heat was off.”

Lie (past tense): “The bandit lay low for two years and then came out of hiding.”

There. That’s enough about lay and lie for one sitting. It’s time for me to lay my books down and lie on the floor to do my stretches.

Need some great resources for improving your grammar? Check out My Bookshelf and Writing Helps, both here on my website.

In Formal Writing, When Should You Use the Ampersand (&) in Place of “And”?

The short answer to the above question is . . . never.

Or at least rarely.

The longer answer is that the ampersand (&) symbol is used in some instances as the legitimate abbreviation for the word and, and is appropriate in notes, bibliographies, and tabular matter. Further, when it appears in the formal name of a company or logo, it is always appropriate. For example, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and PG&E.[1] Occasionally, it is used as a space-saving or stylistic device in the title of a work, such as Nothing About Baseball Is Trivial: Essential Terms, Rules, Stats & History for Fans and Wannabe Fans.[2]

Style guides, such as The Associated Press Stylebook, expressly state that “the ampersand should not otherwise be used in place of and.”[3]

However, when you do use it, here are a few guidelines to remember: (1) If writing a sentence containing serial (or Oxford) commas, you would normally insert that comma before the and; but (2) the comma is omitted when using an ampersand; (3) when the ampersand appears in a company initialism (such as AT&T), there is no space before and after the & symbol.

Let’s again look at the above book title example: Essential Terms, Rules, Stats & History for Fans and Wannabe Fans. (Note, no comma before &). Otherwise, include the serial comma: Essential Terms, Rules, Stats, and History for Fans and Wannabe Fans.

To reiterate, the ampersand should be avoided in almost all instances of formal writing. Instead, spell it out: a-n-d.

I hope this is clear. If so, go forth & conquer! (I mean, go forth and conquer!)


[1] That’s Pacific Gas and Electric for my non-West Coast readers.

[2] How’s that for a sneaky way to slip in the title of my first book. Don’t ask me why I didn’t use an ampersand for the second and. Just . . . don’t ask. Thanks.

[3] AP Stylebook 2017, 17.

Zapping Three Grammar Myths We’ve All Heard

It’s time to debunk these grammar myths.

I learned a few things in grammar school. For example, I learned that boys shouldn’t dip girls’ pigtails into the inkwells. I lived near the Little House on the Prairie then and went to third grade with “Half Pint” Ingalls. Okay, maybe not, but my ancient schoolhouse in Moorhead, Minnesota, did have desks with inkwells—dried up, yes, but I could still fantasize about dipping Half Pint’s pigtails into the inky blackness on my desk. Naughty little fantasizer! Something to be punished for. 

 I learned the hard way not to push friends down the cement steps while waiting in line to go back to class after recess—because, supposedly, friends don’t appreciate that. Oh, bother!

 I also learned not to run into the classroom coat closet to escape from the acrid smell of vomit when a classmate heaves his entire lunch onto his desk and the floor—because not all 30 panicked kids can fit in a coat closet filled with Minnesota-winter coats, mittens, and snow boots. Such things can trigger lifelong bouts of claustrophobia.

 It’s strange to think that this could come from a grammar school: I vaguely remember learning a couple of things about grammar somewhere in my youth or childhood. I learned how improper it was to begin a sentence with a conjunction, or to split my infinitives, or to end a sentence with a preposition. I have no specific memory of these heavenly dictums, but everyone from my generation simply knows such proscriptions are writ large in the canon of divine grammar and must be avoided on penalty of death. I never actually saw a student receive that penalty. Apparently, some teachers stopped short of killing their students. Instead, they rapped their knuckles with a ruler, which explains why most adults hate grammar.

Nonetheless, what a joy to grow up and learn that Miss Grundy may have gotten a few things wrong in the dark days of the Grammatical Inquisition. Today, I am going to take my trusty keyboard and explode three grammar myths. ZAP! There, it’s done. Too simple, you say? Let me explain: Continue reading “Zapping Three Grammar Myths We’ve All Heard”

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch–A Short Book Review

Vex, Hex coverConstance Hale provides one of the most thorough treatments of verbs I’ve read.* The book is aimed at writers, both novice and experienced, and unless you hold a PhD in English composition, you will learn something useful to make your writing better. Do you know all about verb tense, mood, and voice? How well do you understand participles, gerunds, irregular verbs, and phrasal verbs? Do you know why these things matter—and they do matter—and how mastering them will help your writing shine brighter? Hale’s book provides the answers.

The title is a bit awkward (try saying it three times fast!)—I think “Let Verbs Power Your Writing” by itself would have been just fine—but “vex,” “hex,” “smash,” and “smooch” provide the framework around which Hale organizes each chapter, and the scheme works pretty well. At times she ventures into murky waters where even she may be out of her depth. For example, I’m still scratching my head at how “tight-fisted” is a past participle (instead of an adjective), as she asserts on page 224. But for the most part, she’s spot on. She includes many examples from real life and literature to illuminate the concepts, along with plenty of endnotes and an extensive bibliography to warm the hearts of readers who care to dig deeper.

I highly recommend this book to writers, wannabe writers, copyeditors, and students (high school and college), and I know that I’ll regularly pull it off my bookshelf to consult for my own writing.  Δ

*Constance Hale, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).

© 2018 by Dean Christensen (The Dean’s English)

Commonly Misused Latinate Abbreviations in American English

Have you mastered these everyday abbreviations?

Latinate abbreviations (i.e., abbreviations of Latin expressions used in English) can serve as useful tools to enhance our writing. If improperly used, they can detract from our writing and reflect poorly on the writer. Here are some of the most common Latinate abbreviations, their meanings, and notes on their usage. Notice in particular the placement of the periods.

etc_word-art
et cetera

Et cetera, abbreviated etc., means “and so forth” (literally, “and others of the same kind”). Note three things about this abbreviation: (1) It is etc., not ect., and it is not pronounced eck-cetera; (2) It is not “and etc.,” (which would literally be “and and so forth”—that’s redundant); and (3) etc. should be used sparingly in formal writing because it’s a vague term that can make the writer seem lazy—it places the burden on the reader to imagine what specifically the writer is referring to.

e.g._word-art
exempli grata

Exempli grata, abbreviated e.g., means “for example.” Note three things about its use: (1) it is always followed by a comma[1]: The vendor on the corner is selling flowers for Mother’s Day (e.g., red and yellow roses and white and pink carnations); (2) in formal writing, it should be used in parenthetical statements (as in the previous sentence). In the main text it is better to use words like “such as” or “for example”; (3) be careful not to confuse it with i.e., which means something quite different. Continue reading “Commonly Misused Latinate Abbreviations in American English”

“Everyday” vs. “Every Day”

Here’s an everyday grammar boo-boo we find every day on social media and wall plaques.

It’s easy to forget that “everyday” (one word) is a compound adjective that means “ordinary,” “typical,” “usual,” or “garden variety,” as in “Let me slip on my everyday shoes.”

“Every day,” (two words) on the other hand, means, well, “every day,” as in, “Her husband visits her at the lake every day,” or, “We walk the dog every day.”

The vast majority of the time, we mean “every day,” but every day I see it written incorrectly; it has become an everyday thing on social media and wall plaques. Δ

© Copyright 2017 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

 

Lay or Lie? Almost Everyone Gets It Wrong

Let’s sort out the confusion.

Lying Dog
Spot is lying in his favorite place.

One of the most widely committed grammar errors is using lay for lie. This confusion is nearly universal. Writers and speakers everywhere get it wrong. All the time. Popular songs through the years haven’t helped, either. Think of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed,” and Eric Clapton’s “Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms.” And let’s not forget Simon and Garfunkel’s huge hit “The Boxer,” which laments of “running scared, laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go.” Unfortunately, the lays in these examples are all wrong. Now we have an entire generation or two of adults who think that “lay” or “laid” are the only correct forms of the verb, and that “lie” refers to the claims of presidential candidates and Olympic swimmers.

Let’s see if we can sort out the confusion. Continue reading “Lay or Lie? Almost Everyone Gets It Wrong”

Verb Agreement with Collective Nouns

Is it, The Team “Romp” or “Romps”?

Olympic_rings_without_rims.svgA front-page headline in the local newspaper this morning reads, “U.S. Men’s Basketball Team Romp Past China.” Kudos to the U.S. men’s team for romping away in your first game of these Olympics, steamrolling easily over the Chinese team 119-62. But thanks, local newspaper, for reminding us that subject-verb agreement in number is not always so easy.

Nouns that denote an aggregate of individuals or things are called collective nouns and are grammatically singular, which means they take the singular form of the verb. Common examples include flock, herd, group, family, and team. We would say, “The flock of geese is flying overhead”; “The green group challenges the blue group to a sales contest”; “The family that prays together stays together”; and “The U.S. Team Romps Past China.”

There are exceptions and nuances to this rule. For example, when the group is spoken of as a collection of individuals, the plural form of the verb is used, as in, “When the basketball team plays next, I hope they win.”In the first part of the sentence, team is a collective noun, therefore we use the singular form plays. In the second part, the emphasis is placed on the individuals, and therefore we hope they (the individuals who comprise the team) win (the plural form of the verb). This sounds complicated, but it’s something we all get correct without thinking about it.

Suffice it to say that collective nouns are singular nouns and, as such, take singular forms of the verb.

And may the best team win.

© 2016 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

 

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Between You and I, We’ve Got a Problem!

Do you make this common grammar error?

Got a Problem
Subject-object confusion.

Today I want to talk about me. No, I don’t mean me, Dean, I mean the objective pronoun me versus the nominative pronoun I. One of the most common errors in speech and writing is to use I where me should be. 

Here’s the general rule in the simplest terms: Use I as the subject of a sentence or clause and me as the object of a sentence or clause.

Let me give some examples of the incorrect use of these pronouns:

  • “People gave my wife and I four toasters for wedding presents.” (incorrect)
  • “One of the best things to happen to Gary and I is that we became best friends.” (incorrect)

Here’s why both are incorrect: the pronoun I is virtually always used in the nominative case, as the subject of a sentence or clause, not the object. The objective pronoun is me. Replace I with me in both sentences: 

  • “People gave my wife and me four toasters for wedding presents.” (correct)
  • “One of the best things to happen to Gary and me is that we became best friends.” (correct)

Here’s an easy test to use when you’re not sure:  Continue reading “Between You and I, We’ve Got a Problem!”

Welcome to The Dean’s English

Often humorous, always educational, this website promotes standard written and spoken American English.

Thanks for stopping by my website! My overarching goal is to celebrate and affirm standard written and spoken English and consequently promote clearer, more effective interpersonal communication. To that end, I’ve written blog posts and included other resources related to writing, language, grammar, words, usage, punctuation, and even pronunciation. For a few chuckles, check out the “Grammar Funnies” tab.

Why do I write this blog and manage this site? I’m an educator by nature and nurture and a lover of the English language. I get energized by reading English-usage manuals and studying the why-fors and what-have-yous of grammar and punctuation. To use old colloquial expressions, I really dig this stuff. It floats my boat.

Please explore the pages in the menu above to learn about me, my copyediting services, and other resources. If nothing else, you might enjoy the Grammar Funnies page.

All writers hope that people read and appreciate their writings. So I invite you to become a follower of this blog, to “like” it, to leave comments, and to contact me with English grammar and usage questions or ideas for future blog topics.

And please share my website and individual blog articles with friends, family, business associates, and schoolmates. It will be the gift that keeps on giving.


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