Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How do you remember that?

How do you remember that?
The Old-Fashioned Way

Sixty years ago the English language was different. Schoolchildren learned the rules by sing-song rote and everyone respected the teachers who enforced those rules and led the recitation of them. What you learn early you don’t forget easily. I can still tell you about lie-lay-lain vs. lay-laid-laid, set-set-set vs. sit-sat-sat, and swim, swam, have or has swum.
Not so easy is the punctuation, not all of which has changed drastically since then. As an editor, I’m enormously tired of seeing semicolons in weird places. Not that the use of semicolons has changed much; they’re still supposed to be between two complete sentences that are strongly related. (Yes, like that sentence.) Maybe the problem is that nobody recognizes what constitutes an official sentence these days. Thanks, Ernest (Hemingway, that is). My advice to authors: don’t use semicolons at all. Consider them on the endangered species list and save them for making winks in your e-mails. Oh, you just now caught on to what a semicolon is? Well, good for you! Now you know what to do with it. Just don’t let me see it.
And then there’s the apostrophe.
The what?
You know, that little mark that’s kind of like a comma but it’s up above in the words, not down at the lower part of them. It’s always by an “s” – in fact, if you have an “s” on the end of any word, you should probably put one of those little marks between the word and the “s”, right?
But isn’t that what everybody is doing these days?
Maybe so. But it’s still – Wrong. If I never see another apostrophe again, that would be better than seeing one in every place possible. You want me to consider your manuscript? Get it right or don’t use it at all, just like semicolons.
But what’s right?
If the word with the “s” on it owns something, okay, that can have the apostrophe, but that little mark goes after the whole word that owns something. (James’s, not Jame’s, for instance, if James owns something, or the Cutters’ place, if the place belongs to the Cutters, as a family, even if their last name is Cutter.)
If the word with the “s” has another word after it that has part of it left out and is attached to the first word, okay, the apostrophe can go there to show something’s missing. In fact, that’s where the whole idea of using an apostrophe and “s” for showing ownership came from…a few centuries ago people would write “John Baker his book” and that got shortened to “John Baker’s book” by leaving out the “hi” of “his” and using the apostrophe to show something was left out.
So what about things like “its” and “his” and “hers” and “yours”?
Those are possessives, but they don’t get apostrophes.
Why not?
Because they don’t have anything left out. Not because every rule has to have an exception, but if you want to use that as a weak excuse, go ahead. Just don’t give them any apostrophes, or you’ll be sorry someday.
Now do you really want me to go back and deal with lie and lay, and sit and set?
You’ll just have to do what I did: memorize and categorize.
First you say “lie, lay, have or has lain, lay, laid, have or has laid, sit, sat, have or has sat, set, set, have or has set” until you know it so well you can say it in your sleep.
Then you take the first set of each pair of easily mixed up verbs (that is, the lie-lay-lain and the sit-sat-sat) and beat it into your head that these NEVER have a noun that comes after them, something that they are done TO. 
Examples: I lie down today, I lay down yesterday, and I have lain down every afternoon for years. I sit on the chair today, I sat on the chair yesterday, and I have sat there many times.
With the second set of each pair (lay, laid, laid and set, set, set) you continue to give yourself a headache with the idea that these ALWAYS have a something following, something the action is done to.
Examples: She can lay the spoons on the table. He laid the gun down carefully. Mark has laid his plans carefully. Or, The depth charges were laid by the navy. Please note this last example has things turned around but it still says something was done to something.
More examples: Maya sets her basket by her chair. (Don’t you dare put an apostrophe by that “s”!) He set his jaw and continued to speak. We have set our course.
With both of these sets of words, lay-laid-laid and set-set-set, you can substitute the word “put” and have basically the same meaning. And you know you have to have a something that is put, you don’t just do it to nothing. So don’t use “laid” if you can’t use “put” in that spot, etc.
Okay, my ranting wrath is nearly assuaged. I’ll stop now and go back to editing.


Tacy Ray said...

What a great primer! I definitely have trouble with lay and lie--not so much when to use them, but what the past tense of each is. Thanks!

GiniRifkin said...

THANK YOU for this overview.

Printing it out right now. Proud to say I knew quit a bit of this, but still get hung up on the lay, lie scenario.

Donna Heber said...

Wonderful reminder! My darling husband was an English major so if I forget I ask him :-)