It Sounds Wrong, but it’s Right

rogersgeorge on December 12th, 2017

Okay, the intransitive verb “lie-lay-lain” is one we often get wrong in the present tense. We say “I’m gonna go lay down,” when we mean “I’m gonna go lie down.” (note there’s no direct object.)  “Lie,” the correct word, sounds okay even when we often say “lay.”

Ah, but the past tense of lie, which is “lay,” sounds wrong even when it’s correct! I think we’re just too used to something like a “-d” at the end of past tense verbs. Here’s a guy (Mike Peterson of Comic Strip of the Day for December 7, 2017) using it correctly. It’s the past tense:

He may not have been the worst of the lot, but he lay down with the dogs and now he’s getting up with the fleas.

Sorry, he’s right. It’s “lay.” “Laid” is wrong. I suppose Mike could have written, “…he laid his body down with the dogs…” That would be a little strange, but also grammatical.

The rule: “lay” is past tense of “lie.” Deal with it.

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Parallelism is Good

rogersgeorge on June 8th, 2017

A lot of sentences in English are constructed with two parts that are semantically connected. We call this parallelism. Whenever you construct a sentence with parallel parts, those of us in the know consider it good form to make the parallel parts have the same structure. (Search on “parallelism” in the search box on the upper right of this page to find at least five other times wrote about this.) I remember my English teacher back in high school mentioning this, and our grammar book, Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, had some pretty good examples, which I don’t remember. I still recommend that book if you want to have a good grammar text on hand. You can get it on Amazon. But I digress.

An example should help, because what I just wrote is rather vague. Here’s an example of a guy getting it wrong in one sentence and getting it right in the next.

To invoke another axiom, he shows rather than telling. And whether that’s a rule or a cliche, it’s true.

“Shows” is parallel to “telling,” a verb and a participle—bad. The second word should be “tells.” In the next sentence, “that’s” is parallel to “it’s,” both of which are subject-verb combinations, so that’s good. Nice even, because both are not only s-v combinations, but they’re both contractions. He’s a professional writer, a journalist even, so I suppose I should add that this rule is often broken.

But you’re better off if you don’t break it.


rogersgeorge on June 2nd, 2017

While we’re discussing specialty words (see the last two posts), here’s another: slang. Slang is characterized by informality, and it typically has more to do with popular culture than any specialty. Some slang becomes a normal part of the language, some fades away. One of my favorite bloggers, Mike Peterson, of Comic Strip of the Day, found a site that’s all about slang. Here’s a picture of some of it. See how many words you know. I remember my parents using a lot of these.

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Watch your Person

rogersgeorge on May 18th, 2017

You see this mainly in informal English, especially spoken, but if you don’t want to cause that little jolt to your reader that comes from sloppy writing, don’t mix persons. That is, don’t start with something like “me” and end up with something like “you.” (Emphasis mine:)

This pair got an especially hard laff this morning because, for those of us who work at home, time off means time spent thinking there is  something more productive you ought to be doing.

This excellent example of gear-changing is from Comic Strip of the Day, by one of my favorite bloggers, Mike Peterson, who writes both thoughtfully and informally, occasionally providing me with something to quote. The quote is toward the bottom of the post, in a section labeled “Juxtaposition of the Day,” referring to two strips about people who work from home.

Don’t throw your readers this kind of curve. The statement isn’t literally true; (well, maybe it is, but) his meaning is probably about …something more productive that we ought to be doing.

Linguistic Change Again

rogersgeorge on October 7th, 2016

I mentioned this topic a while back, but this comic brought it up, so I thought I’d do a repeat. First the comic (The Barn):

The Barn

Okay. The tendency in English is to go from a common pair of words to the same pair hyphenated (this step sometimes gets skipped), and finally to a compound word. It looks like seat belt is making that trip. Writing seatbelt already feels correct, though it’s not in my spell checker yet. Recently Microsoft, in their style guide, changed web site to website. Email used to be e-mail. Pickup truck used to be pick-up truck. Go back a little farther, and today used to be to-day. And today I ran into a new one. Quoting my favorite blogger, Mike Peterson, in Comic Strip of the Day,

…I remember when Ross Perot chose former POW Admiral James Stockdale as his runningmate in 1992, setting up an honorable man for a disastrous face plant.

“Runningmate” is new to me.

Is it a “backup” or a “back-up”? (If you want the verb, it’s back up.) How about “onboard instrument” or “on-board instrument”?  From the October 2016 Scientific American: “present-day abundance,” “empty-handed detection efforts,” “double-edged sword,” “next-generation detectors,” and “so-called WIMP miracle” are still correctly hyphenated. But these are also correct: “the downside is that…,” “upgraded versions,” “a playground,” but what about “dark horse candidate”? Shouldn’t that be hyphenated?

So if you’re in doubt about whether a pair of words should be separate or together, feel somewhat free to combine them. That’s what’s likely to happen eventually anyway.

Which leads to a joke of sorts. German is older than English, and it’s had more time to make compounds; in fact they’re famous for it. The other day, in conversation with a German friend, we ran into this word:


Figure that one out!