Updated: Conjugate The Verb, Dammit!



Kiefer Sutherland, in the role of Jack Bauer of “24,” was about to chop off a colleague’s hand. The Counter Terrorist Unit underling had been cuffed to a ticking time bomb. Saving his life meant severing the tethered hand. Or at least that was the scenario painted. So, on what was I fixated? I was fuming over scriptwriters and actors who can’t conjugate the verb to “lie.” Sutherland had just instructed the soon-to-be handless colleague to “lay” still. Bill Clinton did the same in a recent interview: “The Democrats cannot lay down and die,” he told the interviewer. Almost every single person on TV does it, with the exception of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and other old-timers. I once wrote to Bill O’Reilly for writing “laying on the beach,” or something similar, in a column. He never wrote back, but the error was promptly rectified, although he repeats it constantly in speech.
It’s “lie down and die,” not “lay down,” stupid! Repeat after me: “I am lying on the bed now. I lay on the bed yesterday. I had once lain on that very same bed. And I will, no doubt, lie on it again.”
Another conjugation crime is, “I had went” instead of “I had gone.”
Some time ago, I remarked to a writer that the past indicative and past participle of “spit” is “spat.” He had written something to the effect of: “yesterday I spit on his porch.” I like hillbilly culture but that was taking it to extremes.
Professor Michael Strumpf, creator of The National Grammar Hot Line, agrees. He has straightened out thousands of errant–and often arrogant–Americans over the years.
We all make mistakes. I’m always grateful when a vigilant reader corrects my spelling; it’s not very good. But some mistakes are particularly bad.

Update: Writer Kevin Grace has been brooding about bad writing, and, in particular, one “passionate voice for stupidity since well before 1984, who can’t write for toffee”: ex-politician Sheila Copps. Kevin wonders whether perhaps newspapers are just giving their readers what they want. “If literacy is now supererogatory and editors are otiose, if bad writing now pays better than good, then why kick against the pricks?”

Kevin’s premise here, however, is that newspaper editors know better. For the most, I think they don’t. Having retired the old guard, newspaper executives hire the young and hip only. The latter think it archaic and stodgy to insist on rules of usage (I’m not even sure their schools teach them the basics any longer). They court lax standards and would gladly sacrifice precision and passion for laidback coolness and ennui (it’s much less threatening to HUGE egos; Wonkette’s prose, anyone?).

As the post’s title suggests–and as Kevin knows all too well–the bad drive out the good.

5 thoughts on “Updated: Conjugate The Verb, Dammit!

  1. Stephen Bernier

    How about: you’ve got; he’s got; she’s got; they’ve got? What is wrong with you have, he has, she has, they have? It drives me insane!


  2. John Danforth

    That ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ issue used to drive my father nuts when I was young. Thankfully, we were always corrected at the dinner table so that we would not be crippled by it later in life.

    But I think I’ve figured out part of it, anyway. Or maybe not. It’s all so confusing. To Bill Clinton, the “lay” could lead to a “lie”, and a woman’s name could thereafter be used as a verb by high school kids after being defined as not what it is by a political party and the lapdog press. I’m going to need help to understand it all.

    –John Danforth–

  3. james huggins

    How about dangling prepositions? They’ve become part of the language of the airwaves because most people don’t know the difference. I was abused by enough English teachers about them that when I hear one I think of finger nails on a black board.

    “A dangling preposition is something up with which I will not put.” (Winston Churchill)

  4. Pam Maltzman

    I had no idea that you would *like* it if your readers corrected your spelling. I usually refrain from doing so except with the worst mistakes, because on a lot of websites one can expect abuse because the people don’t want to be corrected.

    As a medical transcriptionist, I have met other MTs who don’t know “to” from “two” from “too,” or “heroin” from “heroine,” or “their” from “they’re” or “there,” etc., though they are employed full-time in this field.

    Worse yet, a lot of the doctors don’t seem very literate, nor are very many of them well-spoken (even if born here). Whenever a doctor spells something for me, I laugh and look it up if it’s a new-to-me term.

    Medical vocabulary also has a lot of sound-alike words. If I didn’t know “peroneal” from “perineal,” I might be unemployed.

    Correct usage of the English language, even in written form, isn’t in style in our times. I can’t claim to be without error, but at least I try.

    [Very sharp; and do correct me. It’s the incompetent who fear improvement]

  5. Stephen W. Browne

    My pet peeve is the confusion between “fewer” and “less”. But as for lay, lie etc – there may be a dialect difference operating here. “An’ for bonnie Annie Laurie, I wad lay me doon and dee.”


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