The Unstoppable Corruption of the English Language

“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” linguist David Crystal writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second is that punctuation is absolutely critical, not only for clarity but also to show other people that you’re educated.

In her New Yorker article A History of Punctuation for the Internet Age, Adrienne Raphel discusses Crystal’s take on punctuation and the internet. Like many linguists, Crystal is pretty laid back about the unstoppable “corruption” of the English language. Linguists don’t even see it as corruption; it’s just the inevitable morphing that’s innate to language.

In fact, in linguistics the word grammar doesn’t mean those pesky rules you have to learn to speak and write English correctly. Grammar, to a linguist, refers to the innate rules users of a language follow without even knowing they’re following them. This kind of grammar is not about right and wrong, but about occurring or not occurring. Thus, to a linguist, the sentence “I ain’t readin’ no frickin’ books ‘bout punctuation” is not an incorrect utterance if that’s the way English is spoken in the speaker’s dialect or group.

All that said . . . I am still a book editor.

Although I do love our ever-changing language and celebrate the style and ingenuity of individual speakers and writers, I also have a thing for the rules of English grammar (and I don’t mean the “grammar” linguists refer to). Misunderstand me correctly (as my Swedish friend likes to say): I’m not saying you should never break the rules. Heck, I broke a rule a couple of sentences back when I ended the sentence with a preposition. But, when it comes to writing in a publishable or cyber-publishable form, know the rules before you break them. That way you can break them well.

That’s when art happens.

~      ~      ~

Interested in reading more musings on grammar? Check out Grammar Matters and Confessions of a Perfectionist.

 

 

 

Grammar Matters: Lie, Lay, Lain, Oh My!

The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard has never bothered me. However, when someone says, “I was laying around,” I cringe from my toenails to the tips of my hair. The worst part of it is this: Because the incorrect form is uttered so much more frequently than the correct form, it’s probably just a matter of time before the wrong verb pops out of my own mouth. The over-exposure effect.

But I have a plan of action to avert, or at least delay, the onset of incorrect verb reiteration. It’s my secret mantra. My concealed weapon against the decrepitude of the English language. It goes like this: Someone unwittingly uses the verb “lay” when it should be the verb “lie” (as in, “I’m going to lay down”), and I focus my special powers and conjure up my mantra: “lie down, lie down, lie down.” . . . That’s it. Kind of like the New Age pronouncement of “Cancel, cancel, cancel” when someone has a negative thought. Of course, I don’t generally say my “mantra” aloud. My goal is not to be obnoxious; I just want to reinforce the correct usage in my own head. I am, after all, a writing coach and book editor. It’s my job to keep this stuff straight.

So, I’m going to do my job and lay it all out for you. (“Wait,” you may be saying, “she said lay!”  Yes, lay is a verb too. It’s just a different verb from lie.)

Here’s the rule:

  • If the verb does not take a direct object, use lie

Examples:

I lie down.

Please lie on your right side.

This verb does not act upon a direct object (noun).

  • If the verb does take a direct object, use lay

Examples:

I lay the book down.

Lay your body down.

In these examples, the book and your body are direct objects. The verb acts upon these nouns. In my own sentence above, “I’m going to lay it all out for you,” it is the direct object.

But it gets a little tricky when we move into the past tense. Now that I’ve drawn a line neatly between lie and lay, I’m going to confuse you by telling you that the past tense form of lie is lay. Oy!

Here’s a table you can refer to, to help you keep this all straight:

—————————————————————————————–

lie (present), lay (past), lain (past participle)

     Examples:

Let’s lie down in the grass.

When he lay on the bed, it creaked under his weight.

He had lain in bed for an hour before falling asleep.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

lay (present), laid (past), laid (past participle)

Examples:

Lay the gun on the table where I can see it,” the cop said.

She laid the book on top of the dresser.

They have laid the issue to rest.

—————————————————————————————–

If you’re feeling a little confused, you’re not alone. (As I said, many people use the wrong form much of the time.) But if you want to use the right form, just remember that the first verb, lie, is the much more common verb—especially in spoken English. (People today usually put things down—or occasionally set things down—rather than lay them down.)

After I put the book back on the shelf, I will lie down on the floor.

In other words, for present tense you’re mostly going to say lie, and for past tense you’re mostly going to say lay.

You might be asking yourself: “Why does any of this matter? People know what I’m trying to say whether I say ‘lie down’ or ‘lay down.’” . . . It’s true, people will know what you’re trying to say . . . but there will be those among us who hear fingernails on a chalkboard.

Old Words, New Meanings

Language is a living thing. And just as living things shift and evolve, language transforms over time. We may resist the changes that just sound “wrong” (I cringe when I hear someone say, “I was laying in the sun.”), but some of those alterations become so commonplace they’re adopted officially into our speech and into our dictionaries.

My prediction is that they/their is on its way to becoming the official third person singular pronoun (“Every person has their preference.”) It may even show up in the dictionary as such during our lifetimes.

We could choose the tack of the Académie française and set rigid rules for what can and cannot be uttered on our turf (or at least within our earshot) . . . or we can relax and enjoy the ride as English careens into the future.

English certainly is not the same animal it was a hundred years ago, or a hundred years before that. It is a living, breathing, changing entity. And it will continue to expand and migrate for as long as there are people to speak it.

Check out the evolution of the words in the following link, and then come back and share your favorite new words or word usages (e.g., “the bomb”; “friend” used as a verb; twerk; and so on).

Some Everyday Words That Meant Really Different Things

How to Write Your First Book

Check out this great interview with twenty-one successful authors about the experience of writing their first book—from how they made a living before they sold their first book to the nuts and bolts of getting the words onto the page.

How to Write Your First Book

Calling All Writers (read this article before you say yes to writing for free)

If you’re being asked to write—anything—for free, I just hope the person asking is your mother or your kid (or the person who shares your bed). Because if the asker doesn’t fit into one of these categories, he or she is no different from someone in a dental chair saying to the dentist: “Oh, and I just want to confirm that you’re not going to charge for this crown, right? I’ll show it to everyone; it’ll give you great exposure.”

Tim Kreider has published an exceptional essay in the New York Times that tells why it’s wrong to write for nothing: Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

You owe it to yourself (and to every writer who ever hopes to make a living writing) to read this article.