Even here in America, grammar can be fun
July 8, 2014
By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision
My brother’s English mother-in-law grew up in a culture that values all things proper, but she lives in the U.S., so she’s constantly assaulted by American “anti-grammar,” and she reads my column for relief of the mental anguish it causes. She asked if I dared tackle the usage of lay versus lie. I told her it would likely fall on deaf ears, but I would do it anyway, so here goes:
Lay is a transitive verb; lie is an intransitive verb. The prefix “trans-” indicates conveyance, so a transitive verb does an action to something — it has a direct object. Intransitive verbs do not have a direct object. I’m telling you this because it can help you remember the difference between lay and lie. Lay is used when the action is done by one person or thing to another; lie is used when one does the action without involving another person or thing.
In spite of the fact that he’s English, Eric Clapton is not a grammar role model. His song “Lay Down Sally” makes me wonder who picked her up. Of course, I know what he means, but if he’s asking Sally to lay herself down, the song should be “Lie Down Sally.” For some reason, that doesn’t sound right to many American ears. Maybe it’s because we are constantly exposed to wrong usage in popular media.
The conjugation of lay and lie is another source of confusion about their usage. The past tense of lie is lay, so we aren’t sure which lay should be used when. Ironically, American author William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” is an example of correct usage because he’s using lay as the past tense of lie, but you wouldn’t know that unless you read the book, which I highly recommend.
I have a red picture book titled “Grammar Can Be Fun” by Munro Leaf, copyright 1934. Inside the front cover, some perfectly formed, though childish, cursive writing tells me it once belonged to “Norma Jo Gibson, age 6.” Its illustrations are delightfully creepy line drawings of characters named “Gimme,” “Ain’t” and “Wanna.” It starts out slowly, then tackles some pretty advanced grammar for first-graders. This is how it explains the usage of lay versus lie: “If you stretch yourself out, you lie down. Some time ago you lay down. And when finished you have lain down. If you put something else somewhere you lay it there. Some time ago you laid it there. And when finished you have laid it there.” Isn’t that beautiful?
Did I mention this is a first-grade book? Or that Norma Jo was 6 years old? In 1934, it was widely known that the earlier grammar and spelling are learned, the better, and that lots of memorization and practice should be involved. Those methods aren’t popular with the modern education establishment. The new emphasis is on having fun and experimenting in the classroom. There’s nothing wrong with fun or innovation, but we should remember that, ultimately, our children are in school to gain knowledge.
Learning English grammar takes work, but the reward is writing well, and that’s a lot of fun. © Columbia Daily Tribune 2014
Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, MO, an editor by trade, who writes for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where this column first appeared. She is a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send your grammar questions or pet peeves to firstname.lastname@example.org.