Friday, May 19, 2006

Word Trippers

Yesterday, I was editing a chapter of Dr. Warson's "Back Book" for riders and others with sore spines. During the edit, I ran into one of those nasty little English language bugbears -- knowing the difference between "lie" and "lay."

I've found that various English teachers, English majors, and others of the writing ilk tend to have their pet words.

Some, like one of my professors in university, know the difference between "that" and "which," and care very deeply whether or not one uses either word correctly.

Some are great spellers. They give two rips that words like "judgment" and "acknowledgment" are spelled with a "dgm" and not a "dgem."

Some find the difference between "who's" and "whose" obvious, and cannot believe that others... don't.

Some know instinctively that "different from" is correct, and "different than" is not.

Some can smell a passively constructed sentence, a dangling modifier, or a sentence ending with a preposition a mile away.

And some were born knowing when to use "lying" and when to use "laying." I am not one of these people.

For some reason, conjugating "lie" and "lay" correctly always gives me fits, sends me running to my grammar books (or, more efficiently, to my friend Terri Gordon ), and makes me question my judgment (no "e").

I know why this is. It's the little prayer we learn as kids: "Now I lay me down to sleep..." I overlook the reflexive construction of the sentence ("I" do something to "me," so "me" becomes an object...), and focus on the "lay" part. I want to write about a person "laying down to sleep."

But this is wrong.

A person is lying down to sleep. "Is lying." As in -- being supine is the same as not telling the truth.

A hen, on the other hand, is laying an egg. As in -- "Look at me everyone! I have created life... or an omelet."

Barbara McNichol , a writer and editor I met at the Marketing Conference I attended in L.A. in March, calls things like my lie / lay mental block "Word Trippers." She specializes in them. She's even published an e-book that explains over 200 of the little buggers.

Barbara publishes a free monthly e-newsletter full of tips and inspiration for writers. (If you sign up for it, tell her I sent you!) In each one, she includes several such Words, and tells you how to avoid Tripping up on them. I'm certain she's covered lie / lay before, but knowing how to use either one correctly sometimes still makes me go "hmmm?"

It just goes to show -- no one will ever know it all. And trying to is quite tiring. Going to go lay myself down now, and get some sleep!