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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The Second Most Common Mistake

rogersgeorge on December 8th, 2017

—in English! In English! I’m sure this is nowhere near the top of the list of mistakes humans make. This might not even be second on the English grammar list, but I think it comes right after the one where someone, trying deliberately to be high-class, says “between him and I.”

This error is using “whom” when “who” is actually correct (or in this case, “whomever” and “whoever.”). First, the rule: when you have a subordinate clause, work from the inside out. Here’s an example of the mistake, from Edge of Adventure. Look at the first panel in the bottom row. Can you tell why he should have said “whoever”?

Yes, “to” is a preposition, and the clause that comes after it is its object. But that clause has its own subject and verb! And since we work from the inside out, being the subject of that clause takes precedence over the whole clause being an object, so it’s “whoever did this.” If you really want a “whom” in that sentence you could say something like “…to whomever I find on the trail.” Now “I” is the subject, and “whomever” is the direct object of “I find.” Make sense?

So sometimes you have permission to use “who.” Be careful.

Lots of People Get this Wrong

rogersgeorge on November 12th, 2017

“Who,” among other things, is an interrogatory pronoun. We use it when we ask a simple question about someone.

Who ate the last cookie?

To use “who” correctly this way, you need two things:

  1. The “who” must be first.
  2. “Who” must be the subject of the sentence.

The problem is that being the first word in the sentence is a stronger signal than being the subject of the sentence, and that leads to people using “who” when they should use “whom.” For example:

Who do you think ate the last cookie?

The subject is “you,” making that “who” be the direct object, which means you need “whom.” Here’s the sentence in declarative form to make it easier to see:

You think whom ate the cookie.

Let’s change the pronoun to make it more intuitive, because I have a surprise for you:

You think him ate the cookie.

“Huh??? Shouldn’t it be ‘You think he ate the cookie.’?” you ask.

And yes, you’d be right. “He” is the subject of the subordinate clause “-he ate the cookie,” even though the whole subordinate clause functions as the direct object. So in a declarative sentence, with the subordinate subject right there in the clause,  “he” is correct. Sorry to have to throw a grammatical weasel at you, but when you drag the word to the front of the sentence, as you must do when you ask a question, you have to use “whom” to warn your reader that you have a direct object coming up.

All that to praise the porcupine in this Grizzwells comic for getting it right:

Simple version of the rule: If the question has two verbs, use “whom.”

When not to use whom

rogersgeorge on January 6th, 2014

Most of the time when you run into a lesson about who and whom, it’s about using whom when you want to use who. I’ve even posted about it. (Search the site for “whom” for a few other examples.) Usually these articles compare the subject (who) with the direct object or object of a preposition (whom).

There’s another time to use “who,” but first a little background. In Indo-European and Semitic languages at least, the verb “to be” and its various forms and equivalents (seem, appear)  are somewhat special. “To be” etc. is equivalent to an equals sign , and the name for this kind of verb is a copulative. Your grade school teacher probably called them linking verbs. Copulatives couple things together. That means that a noun at the end of a sentence that uses a copulative isn’t a direct object. It’s a predicate nominative.

For example:

Tom is a dentist. Tom and Dave are dentists. They are good dentists, and they are also my cousins.

If we use and equals sign in place of the verb, the meaning is the same:

Tom = dentist; Tom and Dave = dentists.

Predicate nominatives have the same case as the subject, even though they might be where you expect a direct object. It’s the verb’s fault. Copulatives take the nominative, we say. (“We” being linguists, grammarians, and now you, I hope.) So this guy approaches the pearly gates, and St. Peter asks who it is. “It is I,” says the man. Peter mutters to himself, “Ah, an English teacher.”

So be alert! Use “who” with linking verbs. Here’s an example of a professional writer (and his editor, apparently) in a Live Science article who wasn’t paying attention:

There’s no telling whom the original owner of the teeth and finger was, but the cave where they were discovered was both a hermitage, or dwelling place, and the site of a grisly medieval massacre. [8 Disturbing Archaeological Discoveries]

That “whom” really grates. It’s not only at the beginning, where you expect nominatives, but it’s with a linking verb, which takes the nominative.

So there you have it. Two times to use who, not whom. As subjects and with linking verbs.


Yet another comic about grammar

rogersgeorge on December 28th, 2013

Last time I featured a curmudgeon who likes to correct certain mistakes in others’ grammar. Another battle that we curmudgeons are going to lose is using lay and lie correctly. LAY is TRANSITIVE, people! Harrumpf. You always should lay SOMETHING down. When you stretch out on the bed, it’s LIE down. See? No direct object. Harrumpf again.

So this guy in Speed Bump (Dec 21, 2013) got his revenge. Too bad he’s not around to enjoy all the grammarian teeth grinding he’s causing, and I wonder what he had to pay the monument guy to engrave his tombstone that way.


I’ve mentioned this pair of verbs more than once in the past, by the way. Alas, my dear sweet wife does not belong to my grammatical camp.