Tag Archives: lie and lay

Is the Hypercorrectness Troll Gobbling Up Your Grammar?

Writer with questions I remember one of the humorist Dave Barry’s satirical “Ask Mr. Language Person” columns years ago, in which the all-too-sure-of-himself Mr. Language Person opined that “‘me’ is always incorrect.” Barry was referring indirectly to an example of the phenomenon of “hypercorrectness,” which I’d argue leads to almost as many grammar slips as does its opposite, carelessness. I say “almost as many” because these slips are so common!

In a nutshell, a writer slips into hypercorrectness when he or she isn’t gut-sure about what is correct and inoculates him- or herself by making a grammatical choice that sounds just a teeny bit “fancy” and thus “must” be what an educated writer ought to opt for. Books and ladder

As with all grammar choices, whether or not a hypercorrectness slip will hurt you with that editor or agent you hope to impress, or whether it will get your prose chewed up in red in your business report, depends on whether or not your particular audience knows the difference or, for that matter, cares. I’ve seen so many kinds of errors, including just plain careless ones, in so many “erudite” places that I know it can be a toss-up whether your slip costs you an acceptance or gets ignored.

But I argue that knowledge is the power to choose with confidence. The “correct” choice sounds funny to you, so you’d rather go with the “incorrect” one because it feels more natural? Go for it. But it’s really nice to make that choice because you know what you’re doing and why you want it that way.

Free runners sport concept illustration

The single most ubiquitous hypercorrectness error, as Barry recognized, may be the prejudice against poor little “me.” And the single most common example of that prejudice is “between you and I.”

What? That’s wrong? Well, if you’re a purist, yes—for the same reason it’s wrong to write “the zombies were chasing George and I.”

Why? Because, in both cases, the pronouns are “objects” and should be in the “objective case”: that is, “me.”

There’s really a simple test. Strip out or move the proper name or problematic pronoun and see what you have:

  • Between I and you
  • The zombies were chasing I

See?Explosive set

Case two: Sometimes what sounds natural is better. E. g., the who/whom conundrum

I’ve suggested in a prior post that if choosing between these two options leaves you sweating, go with “who.” The situations in which “who” won’t work for almost all readers are rare: say, when you’re inverting the sentence or inserting the pronoun behind an actual preposition:

  • To whom are you speaking?
  • This is the person for whom I was waiting.

If you are writing Downton Abbey fan fiction, okay, you’ll have to master these forms. But in most cases

  • Who are you talking to?
  • That’s who I was waiting for.

will pass muster with almost everyone, even if they are technically incorrect. But as I wrote in my earlier post, the correct forms,

  • Whom are you talking to?
  • That’s whom I was waiting for.

Sad Editing!can actually sound more jarring in many contexts than the errors.

 

 

But the troll of hypercorrectness comes charging out from under the bridge when a writer gets paranoid and decides that “whom” sounds like what a smart person would say. Then we end up with

  • He didn’t say whom would be going to lunch.
  • Don’t give money to whomever asks for it.

cartoonguns

In both cases, the correct choice—and the more unobtrusive choice regardless of what’s correct—is “who.” (For those who enjoy these kinds of things, the rule is that the case of the pronoun is governed by its role in its own clause, not the clause in which it’s embedded.) You can actually apply the same test as for the “I/me” choice: you wouldn’t write, ” He didn’t say her would be going to lunch.” It’s clear you need the subject case.

Case 3:

I came across this usage (though not this exact sentence) in a self-published book just the other day:

  • Our worries lied in the way he was behaving.

emoticon face

Obviously, I can’t know what prompted the writer to make this choice. But I suspect it’s another instance of hypercorrectness, based on the Mr.-Language-Person-type precept that, in this case, “‘lay’ is always incorrect.” We’ve heard and heard and heard that people don’t “lay,” chickens do. So it must follow that anywhere our uneducated ears order us to say “lay,” we must really need “lie.”

Uh, no.

Confused business man, short term memory loss

There’s really no test or easy fix for this one. If you aren’t sure but really want to be, you have to look it up. I will say that the use of “lay” as in “I’m going to lay out in the sun for a while” has become so universal that many an otherwise persnickety person will read right past “lay” in this usage. They’ll probably read past “we laid out in the sun yesterday” (yes, “lay” is the correct past tense of “lie”). But I suspect that most readers would hiccup at “We lied out in the sun yesterday.”

Moral? Sometimes it’s better to be technically wrong than hypercorrect. If you really want to be correct, don’t guess. When in doubt, find out!

Magic book

 

 

 

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Grammar Rules I’m on the Fence On. Are You?

Typewriter with questions marksI’m curious what people think because I am on the fence. Unlike ending a sentence with a preposition, these are not nonsensical non-rules. And unlike using “who” when “whom” is technically called for, they’re not completely invisible—or are they? That’s my question: If you were advising a beginning indie author wanting to self-edit, would these go on your “must know” list?

In fact, very well-credentialed writers do ignore them. Is that enough to move them to “okay to ignore”?

I’ll start with one that seems to have been ripped up and stomped on:

The dangling modifier.

I recall the first time I heard a dangling construction on an episode of NPR’s Nova. What??!! Since then, I’ve seen so many of these that if I had a penny for every one, I could pave my driveway in copper.Sad Editing!

The pattern’s ubiquitous.

“An accomplished author, her books have sold millions.”

“Long known for her steamy romances, her fans number in the millions.”

“His heart broken, the loss of his lover left him devastated.”

“Running across the street, a car almost hit me.”

Does only an ex-English teacher shrivel inside her arid little syntactical shell when the modifier doesn’t modify the noun or noun phrase that immediately follows? When it’s not her books that are an accomplished author? When it’s not her fans that are known for her books? When it’s not the car running across the street?

It’s not that readers can’t make out what goes with what. Is it only an ex-English teacher who shivers in delight when parts of sentences link together so precisely that they’re like the rocks in Inca walls—you couldn’t force a needle between them?

It’s amazing how obviously problematic these seem in isolation. Yet, zoomed over in texts, it can be hard to catch them. (Hah! See?)

But readers know what’s meant perfectly well, don’t they? So what’s the fuss?

Lie and Lay.Writer with questions

I just saw “laying” when it should have been “lying” in a book I deeply respected. Which editor’s job is it to catch this? Am I silly to care?

I’m going to make the radical claim that the English language has decided. “Lie” and “lay” in the progressive tenses (she was lying/laying, he is lying/laying) are interchangeable, as they are in the simple past (he lay/laid down). Let go of it, you hyperventilators! The distinction has deserted you.

Or has it? Is it worth fighting for?

pile of lettersIncomplete comparisons.

If you look this one up online, you’ll be told that you “complete” a comparison by making sure to state what is being compared with what. In other words, it’s “incomplete” if you say that “Painkiller X is better.” You must say better than what. Nor can you say, “Product X has the most nutritious ingredients.” You must designate the category in which nutritious ingredients are being measured. The first hits in an online search tie such “incomplete comparisons” to misleading advertising. These hits are correct: We do hear claims like these all the time. But they’re fairly easy to spot if we’re looking.

However, here’s what seems to be a more subtle form of incomplete comparison, given how often it pops up:

1) Education in Europe is a lot cheaper than the United States.

2) The restaurants in Louisville are better than Cincinnati.

3) My friend’s grammar skills are better than some English teachers.

Here’s a sentence I read this morning in an academic journal (I have changed some relevant nouns lest some enterprising soul try to figure out where it came from):

My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than some others at many locations.

Now, one could make the case, given the exceptional level of literacy this writer demonstrates throughout the article, that “some others” here refers to “years,” not other, comparable employees. If the referent is “employee,” however, the sentence would have to read (with the “understood” parts in brackets):

My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than [they have been] FOR some others at many locations.

Would you have read this sentence as I did? Would you have revised it, possibly to clarify the referent? What about the others above (1-3)? Would they have jumped out at you if you weren’t looking for them?Torn up drafts

And then there are these:

Each of these, in some camps, is wrong. Yet I bet we read over them as often as we catch them. So. . . if you were editing your own work or your critique partner’s, would you flag these?

Neither of us are going to be there.

The data explains why the theory is wrong.

McDonald’s raised their prices again.

None of us like making mistakes.

Verdicts? Let me know what you think!Woman writing

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