Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Choose another word

I once sent a brief note to my editor in which I used “there” when I meant to write “their”. I was mortified. I mean deep down, stomach clenching, cheeks ablazing, might as well forfeit-your-first-born-child type of mortification.

I felt compelled to send her a follow-up note in which I begged her to believe that not only do I know the difference between There, Their, and They’re, but 'round about the age of five I also mastered Too from Two from To.

Don’t even get me started on the proper use of apostrophes.

My dad used to paraphrase Albert Einstein, saying “anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word clearly lacks imagination.” No surprise: My father and Einstein were both rotten spellers.

Okay, fair enough. There are people who are natural-born spellers, and those who aren’t. But for the love of God, people, use spell check. Or that old-fashioned tome called a dictionary. If all else fails, choose a different word.

For instance, I have gone through much of my life avoiding using the terms “to lay” and “to lie”. Try as I might, I cannot get the rules to stick in my brain. Do you lay on a bed or lie upon it? Yesterday, did you lay or lie or will you be laid (not that way, people! Stay on topic) and did you lay down upon the bed right next to the coverlet that lie upon it first? And can someone lay next to you and lie, and did the pillow lay there also?

(I like to assign at least partial blame to a certain Dylan song from my childhood, Lay, Lady, Lay, which, apparently, got it all wrong. It should have been Lie, Lady, Lie. Eric Clapton jumped on that confusing bandwagon also, with Lay Down Sally, which should have been Lie Down Sally. But I'll refrain from digressing about artistic license...)

So rather than lay or lie anywhere, my characters tend to relax upon chaise lounges, recline upon blankets, or linger in their beds. A newspaper might be found splayed atop a table, sitting upon a bureau, or decorating the counter. I could go on.

The other day I noticed my local grocery store put up a new sign announcing an express lane reserved for customers with 12 Items or Fewer. Color me happy. Fewer. As opposed to the nearly ubiquitous 12 Items or less. I was aglow with the comforting knowledge that there are still a few stubborn asses like me, word nerds who insist upon saying “fewer” rather than “less” when referring to items that can be counted rather than weighed.

I know it’s lame. I know it. But now that I’ve made my grammatical bed I’ll just have to…recline upon it.


Hard Boiled Mysti said...

ah, you poor tortured soul! I remember being a kid and seeing a sign for a show that was so fabulous, it was "a whole nother world!"

I stopped in my tracks. Nother is not a word. It bothered me for days, that grownups were allowed to just make up a word and put it on signs and on the radio...

Later, as a baby linguist, I discovered that fixed rules of grammar only slow down the inevitable changes in a language -- meaningless differences erode over time. That's why people mess up their/there/they're so often -- rarely is there a context in which mixing them up is confusing. Ditto too/to/two. the phrase and sentence are mighty heroes, and provide context to sort out spelling errors, a concept that didn't carry much weight until Gutenberg, if I'm remembering my history correctly.

Another area rich with change in Englis is the wacky stuff our verbs do -- many dialects of English have dropped many of the tricky rules, normalized "be" in a very regular way. We mock them as "ignorant," but really they are about 100 years ahead of those of us who struggle with lie/lay (I just read the rules about that 24 hours ago. already out of my head). That one sticks around because it is important to know whether, for example, Lady is reclining or someone is reclining her :)

nonetheless, when I'm reading a sign or a book, where getting the rules right is that person's job, it catches my eye and usually drives me crazy. Even if I do it myself in email all the time ;)

Sophie Littlefield said...

so funny, we all have our little weirdnesses....I'm not plagued by lie/layism, but i have a serious case of that/which-itis. I actually found this comforting as proof that no one is perfect when it comes to grammar, though I often pretend to be, just to annoy people :)

Rachael Herron said...

Oh, gah. Lay/lie. I can't stand it. Well, present tense is okay, but past tense? I will walk ten miles to avoid having to use it.

Lisa Hughey said...

I am a lie/lay idiot--I never get it right. I've taken to choosing one and then going with the opposite in the hopes that by going against instinct I'll get it right and even then it's usually wrong. So in final edits, it disappears from my manuscript to be replaced by a word I actually *know* is right. :)

Anonymous said...

This is one I do have and am a stickler with my kids. It is frustrating because their teachers often use these words wrong.

I remember once being very pleased when my daughter (age 10 or so) said, "I love to lay my towel on a dock and lie in the sun." I've used that example to help her little brother remember which word goes where.

Love your posts, Julie!

Susan said...

Jules, my personal peeve is lend/loan. everyone has it wrong...always. You did not mention your mother, and the off heard " people will think that you were raised in a barn" comment that accompanied any bad grammer. Well, I guess it helped you to become a writer. Remember, people always like to do what they can do well. It is obvious that you do writing well. Not good, but well. Remember your father that time when he ranted for 10 minutes after hearing someone on television say " no wonder you can't get no satisfaction" We tried for quite a while to convince him that it was a song lyric but he still ranted about poor grammer in the "youth of today" etc... said...

Sigh, I thought I was going to get the definitive lie/lay lesson, Julie, but I'll just have to keep doing as you do and reconstruct an entire paragraph to avoid choosing!

In the quote Einstein also got the "only" wrong -- one of my pet peeves: put the only where it belongs, not "only think" but think of only one ..."
Good thing he got his equations right.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Mysti -- love your comment. And yes, I, too, remind myself that languages are dynamic and in a constant state of change. I'm sure it won't be long, for instance, before we drop the third-person "s" in our conjugation. peeves me!
Sophie -- I'll check your which/that if you'll ride herd on my lie/lay!
Lisa-- Please share your "lie/lay" subsitutes!
Anonymous -- I ove that you're raising your kids right! I'm SUCH a stickler with my son, so he now intentionally makes mistakes in order to drive me up the wall. I take solace in the fact that it IS intentional, implying that it can be reversed!
Susan -- ah, such memories...that early training is pretty tough to shake ;-)

Adrienne Miller said...

Oh Julie, I'm the same way about lay/lie. My poor characters never get to rest.

Eric Beetner said...

I am loving all these grammar posts (reading them backwards though) I just had to second the joy in seeing a store get it right with the 10 items or fewer. I find this rule an easy one to remember and can't figure out why it has gone so long without being corrected in society.
Lay/Lie I get why that's is confusing.