Editor’s Note: Liars and Layers

This is the third in a series of occasional articles on grammar and language.

A few facts to begin with: I own a Kindle. I am a cheapskate. Because I don’t like to spend money on books (I’m a faithful library patron), the Kindle books I read are mostly free ones. Free Kindle books are almost always self-published. Unfortunately, as a rule, self-published books are inadequately edited, making them painful reading for a copy editor.

It is not really surprising that an author who has no reasonable expectation of making any significant income from writing will be unwilling to pay for professional copy editing. The author’s acknowledgments often mention a relative or an English-teacher friend who “proofread” the book; some authors have a stable of “first readers” whom they rely on to catch errors. But I have read some books that appeared to have been written in a hurry and then never reread even once before seeing the light of day, and often some errors remain even in books whose authors cite a paid copy editor.

It is unfortunate that some of the world’s most creative people—people who think up plots faster than they can get them down on paper, people whose character development is convincing and whose dialogue sounds natural—are so prone to careless errors, but that is the sad truth, and that is why copy editors are needed.

The error that I find most annoying—to the point that I consider it a kind of shibboleth—is confusion of lie and lay. If an author cannot distinguish these two verbs, then it is highly likely that his or her book will also contain many more errors.

I am well aware that I am far from the first writer to address this issue. Indeed, writing on this subject is so common that I know I’m fighting a losing battle, but still I will take up the gauntlet. To speak meaningfully about lie and lay, we need to speak about some basic grammatical principles. One of these is conjugation of verbs. When you mention “conjugation,” you may find people muttering, “Amo, amas, amat.” This is a sure indication that sometime in the misty past they acquired a smattering of Latin.

Latin is an inflected language. In the case of verbs, this means that verb forms incorporate the personal pronoun (I, you, he, she, it, we, they). This can be seen in the conjugation of the present tense of the verb amare (to love):

Singular Plural
First Person amo (I love) amamus (we love)
Second Person amas (you love) amatis (you love)
Third Person amat (he, she, it loves) amant (they love)

As can be seen from the translations, English does not change the form of the verb in the present tense except in the third person singular. In the past tense (loved), the form is the same in all instances.

In Latin, amare, like “to love” in English, is a regular verb. If you know that the infinitive is amare (which marks it as First Conjugation), you know how to construct all the other forms of the verb, in every person, tense, and mood. In English, it is much simpler: the third-person singular is formed by adding –s to the base form of the word (loves); the past tense is formed by adding –d or –ed (loved). That same form is also used as the past participle, the form used in the present perfect and past perfect tenses (he has loved, he had loved).

But Latin, like English, also has irregular verbs, which don’t obey those rules, so Latin dictionaries list the “principal parts” of the verb—the clues needed to construct all the forms of the verb. English dictionaries do the same thing. The principal parts of an English verb are the present (love), past (loved), past participle (loved), and present participle (loving). (The present participle is used in what are called progressive verbs, such as “I am going” or McDonald’s catch phrase “I’m lovin’ it.”) As noted above, for regular verbs, these are easily derived and present no problem. It’s the irregular verbs where people get into trouble.

Let’s start with an easy version of lie, the one that means “to tell an untruth.” This is a regular verb: I lie/will lie, I lied, I have/had/will have lied, I am/was/will be lying. Except for the vowel shift (lie to lying), there are no traps here.

Turning, however, to the verb lie that means “recline in a prone or supine position,” we find an irregular verb. The principal parts of this verb are lie, lay, lain, and lying. The present tense and present participle are the same as for the regular verb, but the past and past participle are irregular. So we get I lie/will lie, I lay, I have/had/will have lain, I am/was/will be lying.

Contrast the verb lay, meaning “to put [something] down.” Its principal parts are lay, laid, laid, and laying, hence I lay/will lay, I laid, I have/had/will have laid, I am/was/will be laying. The significant clue here is the “[something].” The verb lay is a transitive verb, which means that it requires a direct object. Lie is intransitive (doesn’t require—indeed, may not have—an object). You can lie around all day, but you have to lay something. A chicken lays an egg, for example. You may warn someone not to lay a hand on your property.

Here are a few correct examples, taken from well-known sources:

The first Nowell the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. [This is the past tense of lie.]

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth. [This is the present tense of lay.]

“Now I lay me down to sleep…” [This is the present tense of lay, and “lay me” is equivalent to “lie.”]

“The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head…” [This is the past tense of lay. Confusion caused by its being followed by “down” sometimes results in it being sung as “lay down.”]

The last three examples illustrate that compounds with lay, such as lay down, lay up, lay away, are conjugated the same.

Now a few horrible incorrect examples:

Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed. [Sadly, this is Bob Dylan, and, as much as I love the song, it still makes me cringe.]

The remaining examples are all taken from a single incredibly awful book:

We were told the disease could lay dormant for months or years…

I enjoyed laying with my back pressed on the earth…

I approached him from behind and lay my hand upon his shoulder.

We would need their love and recount it daily, for what lie ahead was a scary prospect.

I lay him down, propping him with pillows and pat his back repeatedly.

I walked towards her, jutting my large belly in front of her as she lie positioned upright on the porch.

I folded them [winter skirts] neatly and lay my shawls atop them…

This author has clearly been traumatized by some previous attempt to correct her use of lie and lay, to the point where she is sprinkling verbs at random on the page, apparently without any clue to the proper form. Let this not be you! You will be safe if you remember these critical points:

  • The verb lie cannot have an object. The present tense is lie. The past tense is lay. The past participle (used with have, has, and had) is lain.
  • The verb lay must have an object. The present tense is lay. The past tense is laid. The past participle is also laid.

If you find yourself writing “lay” and it is not past tense and does not have an object, then it is almost certainly wrong. [There is one very small technical exception. When I was in college, it used to bug me that my classmates would talk about “laying out” to get a suntan. This is doubtless Southern idiom that will never be corrected. But there is one correct use of “laying out” (without an object); that is doing a layout in jazz dance. Unless you are a dancer, you’re unlikely to need this phrase!]

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Editor’s Note: Did It Happen or Not?

This is the second in a series of occasional posts on grammar and copy editing.

A couple of weeks ago, the following headline appeared in a daily email newsletter from the Washington Post:

If I were copy editing this, I would want to know whether “legions” included koalas. That is, was it “at least three people and legions of livestock and koalas”? Or was it three people, legions of livestock, and some unstated number of koalas? In either case, I would suggest a rewrite.

But that problem pales beside the egregious error of “may have added.” “May have” expresses uncertainty. Since we are told that zoo staff saved these animals, there is no doubt that they were not added to the death toll. This is reinforced by the word “otherwise.” What the writer meant to say was that, if zoo staff had not acted to save the animals, they might have [been] added to the death toll. This type of if-then statement is called “contrary to fact,” and it is one of the few surviving instances of the subjunctive mood in English. Consider these examples:

Wrong: If I had not been brought up Presbyterian, I may never have met my husband.

Right: If I had not been brought up Presbyterian, I might never have met my husband.

My husband and I attended different colleges in the same town but chose the same church to attend. We have been married for 52 years. Unquestionably, I met him. He wasn’t my husband at the time, so it would be more correct to say, “If I had not been brought up Presbyterian, I might never have met the man who became my husband,” but that is a quibble.

Why do so many people get this wrong? The problem is reinforced by a general misunderstanding of the relation of may and might. People seem to think they are equivalent, or that might perhaps expresses more uncertainty than may. And in fact, in many situations may and might can be interchangeable. Strictly speaking, however, might is the past tense of may and is properly used when a sentence is in the past tense. Consider these examples:

If you ask me whether I plan to attend the concert tonight, I may say, “I might.” [Present Tense, Simple Condition]

If you asked me whether I planned to attend the concert that night, I don’t remember your asking. [Past Tense, Simple Condition]

If you asked me whether I plan to attend the concert tonight, I might say, “I may.” [Present Tense, Contrary-to-Fact Condition]

If you had asked me whether I planned to attend the concert that night, I might have said, “I may.” [Past Tense, Contrary-to-Fact Condition]

Here is another set of conditions contrasting simple uncertainty and known fact:

If he says that, he is mistaken. [Present Tense, Simple Condition; it is unclear whether he is saying that]

If he said that, he was mistaken. [Past Tense, Simple Condition; it is unclear whether he said that]

If he said that, he would be misunderstood. [Present Tense, Contrary to Fact; he definitely is not saying that or probably will not say it]

If he had said that, he would have been misunderstood. [Past Tense, Contrary to Fact; he definitely did not say it]

As you can see from the above two sets of example, the present subjunctive in English (asked, said) is identical to the simple past indicative in most cases. This alone can be confusing. Compounding the problem is the form of the subjunctive of the verb to be, as shown in these examples:

If I’m going, I need to leave right now. [Present Tense, Simple Condition]

If I was going, I needed to leave right then. [Past Tense, Simple Condition]

If I were going, I would need to leave right now. [Present Tense, Contrary to Fact]

If I had been planning to go, I would have needed to leave right then. [Past Tense, Contrary to Fact]

This is where people really get into trouble. People who would never say “If I was you” instead of “If I were you” will overcorrect and say, “If he were going, he would need to leave right then.” That is, they use the subjunctive were instead of the correct simple past was. Fortunately, the subjunctive form is different only in the first and third person singular forms (I and he, she, it), but this still leaves plenty of room for error.

There is a simple solution for this problem: Simply restate the sentence in the present tense. If it is not contrary to fact in the present, then the subjunctive is incorrect. Keep in mind that “if he were” is present tense; if the rest of the sentence is in the past tense, then were is probably wrong.

A similar problem arises in indirect questions. You can see an example of an indirect question in the “If you ask me” series above. Consider these examples, all of which represent a report of the question “Are you going?”:

He asks me if I am going [i.e., planning to attend]. [Indirect Question, Present Tense]

He asked me if I was going. [Indirect Question, Past Tense]

Wrong: He asked me if I were going.

This type of error may arise when the writer has studied Latin. In Latin the verb in an indirect question takes the subjunctive. But English is not Latin, and we use the indicative. But I think the error primarily results from confusing indirect questions with conditional statements, because both use if. Again, there is a simple solution: Restate the indirect question using whether instead.

He asks me whether I am going. [Indirect Question, Present Tense]

He asked me whether I was going. [Indirect Question, Past Tense]

Wrong: He asked me whether I were going.

It is much less likely that you will make this mistake after “whether,” and indeed, in formal writing, using whether is probably preferable, especially if there is an actual condition involved as well:

He asked me, if he paid for the tickets, whether I would like to go to a movie.

This could also be restated to avoid the condition if:

He asked me if I would like to go to a movie provided he paid for the tickets.

Now go enjoy that movie and don’t make these mistakes again!

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Editor’s Note: Getting Started

This is the first of a series of occasional posts on grammar and copy editing.

When I first started my business, I was mostly typing student papers, and it was clear that my competitive edge was that I automatically edited the copy as I was typing. Eventually I became uncomfortable with the knowledge that I was undoubtedly helping my customers to get a better grade, which most teachers would probably regard as cheating. Fortunately, within a few years, my clientele shifted, and for the past 40+ years, I have primarily worked for authors and other non-students. Although I still have a few “legacy” clients who submit their copy handwritten, to be typed, most of my work nowadays is copy editing and formatting, so I now identify myself as a freelance copy editor. It is work that I enjoy, and I especially appreciated the depiction of a copy editor in Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians. She quotes that character as saying, “Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their author,” which I think is a perfect description of the work I do, untangling a rat’s nest of clumsy grammar and syntax to bring out the writer’s actual meaning.

Copy editing seems to be an innate skill, though I have also developed it by reference to numerous style manuals. I unfortunately seem to zero in on the one error in a page of text, and this can make it uncomfortable to read anything, especially books that contain many errors. Any book I read will have marginal corrections (except the Kindle books, which are spotted with yellow highlights). There are certain types of errors that I see repeatedly, and I have been thinking for some time that I ought to complain about these in a more helpful way. There is no better time of year than the beginning to start such a series of lessons, so here goes!

Let’s start with a quotation from a work you may have thought of recently:

Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter
That I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

This is an example of the correct use of a past-tense subordinate clause beginning with “when.” Such a clause usually marks a specific event that occurs during an existing situation. That situation is described either with the past progressive tense (“I was reading when the phone rang”) or the past perfect tense indicating a state created by a previous event (“I had already started the dishwasher when he brought me another dirty cup”). In some cases, the “when” clause is causal, in which case the simple past may be used: “He jumped up when I called his name.”

So what is wrong with these examples, all of which involve getting started?

She started to run again when a shot rang out, then another. The girl stopped, and so did I.

In this case, it’s obvious from the context that she stopped when she heard the gunshot, so she didn’t start when “a shot rang out.” So she “had started to run again” when the shot rang out.

I started to ask who Anita was when we heard the sliding door open.

Hearing the sliding door open did not prompt the question. Here it is clear that the narrator was about to ask.

I started to check what had happened to the internet connection when I heard a car outside.

Again, the narrator was already engaged in the check when he heard the car, so “I had started…” or “I was starting…”

I started to turn toward her when I saw a Great Blue Heron land on the deck.

A good paraphrase here would be: “As I was turning toward her, I saw a Great Blue Heron land on the deck.”

I entered the outer room and started for my office when something hit me on the back of the head.

The narrator could say that he “was headed for” (or “heading for”) his office.

I started back toward Pete’s building when a red Mazda zipped by.

Perhaps just “I was walking back…”

I started down the walk toward the bank when the door suddenly flew open and Bill ran out.

This is a little more complex. A simple fix would be “I had started down the walk,” but little would be lost by simplifying to “As I walked toward the bank, the door suddenly flew open and Bill ran out.”

I could multiply examples here, but I think you get the idea. Whenever you start to write a sentence that includes both “started” and “when,” think again. Unless causation is implied, you should probably write “had started” or “was/were starting,” or perhaps you can substitute a participle, such as “was/were headed/heading,” or use “was/were about to,” or recast the sentence entirely to make the “when” clause the main clause, subordinating the “starting” action, as in the Great Blue Heron example above.

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In the July issue of The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International, circulated to over 500,000 English-speaking Rotarians worldwide, frequent contributor David Sarasohn, in an article titled “Wishful Thanking,” ranted about the use of “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome,” “I’m good” for “No, thank you,” and “My bad” for “I’m sorry.”

The October issue of the magazine published a letter to the editor in which I had written:

It seems to me that David Sarasohn’s objection to “No problem,” “I’m good,” and “My bad” (“Wishful thanking,” The Rotarian, July 2019) is based primarily on their novelty. He is thus striking a blow against progress and modernism and the natural development of the language. I confess that, as an old fogey myself (75 in September), I’m also not a fan of these phrases, but I think he did an injustice to “My bad.” In an era in which individuals and, more importantly, institutions (such as hospitals) are loath to express sympathy by saying “I’m sorry” lest their concern be construed as admitting culpability, we should be celebrating “My bad,” which, although it does not express sympathy, does assume responsibility, unequivocally acknowledging error (“My mistake” or “I was wrong”) or guilt (“My fault” or, in confessional terms, “Mea culpa”). There are still plenty of occasions for “I’m sorry,” but if “My bad” is merely equivalent to “Oops” or “Pardon me,” it seems to me unobjectionable. (I should add that the form in which I often hear it is “Sorry, my bad.”)

I was not the only respondent. One wrote, “As a 30-year-old Rotarian, I do not appreciate it when the well-meaning language of my generation is dismissed as insincere and rude.” Another wrote, “As a millennial Rotarian who has spent many tedious years working in customer service, I was quite disappointed with the negative attitude toward service staff in ‘Wishful Thanking.'” Both suggested that the magazine would do better to emphasize Rotary’s good works rather than alienate the younger members Rotary is trying so desperately to attract. [This problem extends to the magazine’s advertising as well; no matter how hard the editorial content boasts of how up-to-date Rotary has become, with smartphone apps and other high-tech improvements, younger members can’t help but be turned off by ads for walk-in tubs and ED drugs.]

I have been giving the matter further thought. I have no defense of “no problem,” which Sarasohn accuses of creating a putative problem where there should be none. He admits it is the equivalent of Spanish and French phrases with similar usage but dismisses this excuse, and I tend to agree that, until “No problem” becomes as invisible as “You’re welcome,” it will cause problems.

But I’m not so sure about “I’m good.” I’m coming to believe that a naked “No, thank you” has come to be regarded as a rejection almost as unacceptable as “I’ll pass” or “I’ll take a pass” or “I’ll give that a miss” (the subject of a Miss Manners column and follow-up). Naturally, if, when offered a second helping, you reply, “No, thank you. I couldn’t eat another bite,” your intent will be understood. But “I’m good” (with perhaps a pat on your stomach) conveys the same meaning. And I have rarely heard “I’m good” used in response to other sorts of offers and invitations (the sort that might elicit “I’ll pass”). I say, “I’m good!” with vigor in response to the drive-through bank teller’s inquiry after my health, but this is a different situation.

Bottom line, though, we should be grateful that anyone uses any of these phrases intended to grease the wheels of social interaction.

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Fairhope Scavenger Hunt: Part 2

Over a year ago, I posted the “Birdwatcher Edition” of the Fairhope Scavenger Hunt. I fully intended to return the next day or the next week to post a follow-up. Then life happened. May and June are always busy for me, but things really fell apart in August: the next few months seemed to be one protracted “technical difficulty.” I replaced, not always as deliberately as I would have liked, my computer (after a hard drive crash), my keyboard (the E key stopped working), and my mouse (twice—the second time, the left button stopped working after less than six months) and purchased a new all-in-one to replace both a balky inkjet printer and a recalcitrant fax machine. Between November and February, I also had physical/medical difficulties. And I was learning how to use a smartphone (my first). The bottom line was that I didn’t feel much up to blogging.

Today, however, having some free time, I thought I should post some more photos. Last time was all birds; this edition has “beasts” and “fish” (marine animals in general). The first example is hard to miss: the public sculpture of dolphins in the Bayfront park along Mobile Street. The rest I challenge you to identify. Again, they are all found within one block of the bay.

Also, to answer the extra-credit question in the previous post: The last two photos were of the columbarium at Trinity Presbyterian Church. This provides space for the ashes of cremated loved ones. “Columbarium” is a Latin word meaning “dovecote” (from columba, ‘dove’).

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What a Waist!

The current (February/March 2019) issue of AARP The Magazine (which arrived in mid-March, but that is a discussion for another time) has an article on “7 Numbers That Reveal Your Heart Disease Risk.” One of these is “waist circumference.” The number to shoot for is 35″ or less for women (40″ for men). The article provides the following instructions:

To measure your natural waist, grab an old-fashioned tape measure and stand without pushing out or sucking in your belly. Wrap the tape measure around your torso just above your hip bones. (If you lean to one side, a crease forms at the point of your natural waist.) Exhale, then measure.

This is exactly how I would define my natural waist. That is where I want the waistband of my pants and skirts to sit. It is the point at which I am narrowest, so it is a secure place for garments to rest.

Although it is my narrowest point, it is, of course, not as narrow as it once was. I never had an 18″ waist à la Scarlett O’Hara. I don’t think I could have managed that even with a corset (or the Merry Widow that was popular in my salad days), but I think I once boasted 24″. It’s more than that now but still well under 35″.

But you wouldn’t know that from my medical record. The last time I went in for my annual Medicare wellness visit, the nurse wanted to measure my waist. I cleared the area of covering garments and started to put the tape measure at my waist. No, she instructed me, put the end of the tape measure on my navel and then twirl around so that the tape circles me at that point.

This is insane! My navel is 3″ below my natural waist, and the measurement there is some 8″ greater than my actual waist measurement. Because I have a tummy. I have always had a tummy—apparently from birth. Pictures of me from childhood show me with stick-thin arms and legs and round little belly. Even when I had no hips and buttocks to speak of, I always had a protuberant abdomen. So measuring my “waist” this way is disastrous.

My BMI doesn’t need any further insults. I’ve always been short, but now I’m even shorter. Historically, I was 5′3″. Not too long ago I was measured at 5′2½″. I could live with that. But at my most recent medical visit, a nurse reported my height as 5′½″! I commented that this made me even more overweight than I thought (my BMI is still well under 25, but my belly makes me too “fat” to wear clothes well).

Apparently my doctor’s office is not alone in defining “waist” in this bizarre way. WebMD offers these instructions for measuring the waist: “Start at the top of your hip bone, then bring the tape measure all the way around your body, level with your belly button.” The website verywellfit says, “Waist circumference is a measurement taken around the abdomen at the level of the umbilicus (belly button)” and instructs you to “wrap the tape measure around the widest part of your stomach, across your belly button.” But most definitions and illustrations online describe or show “waist” as I understand it.

I plan to take this matter up with my primary care physician at my next wellness visit. If they are required to measure around my navel level, then that’s what they will have to do, but they should not call it a “waist” measurement because, at least to my mind, that is not what a waist is.

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Buying Toilet Paper

A few days ago I brought the last package of toilet paper upstairs to our bathroom and accordingly put “TP” on my grocery list, so when I go to Walmart this afternoon, I’ll be hitting the toilet paper aisle. This usually doesn’t require much thought or effort. I long ago settled on my “favorite” brand (though the reasons for that selection are lost in the mists of time), so I head right to it. I usually buy the Giant Economy Size of 24 or even 36 rolls, avoiding looking at the shelf price since I don’t even want to know how much I’m paying for something that will just be thrown away.

I recently said to my husband that I was thinking of changing brands. He strenuously objected, saying that he liked what we have, but the problem is that it is very linty: I am constantly having to sweep or vacuum up paper dust from under the TP dispenser. If I did decide to switch, Walmart offers several brands to choose among: Cottonelle, Charmin, Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, and its own Great Value brand. Cottonelle, my “favorite,” comes in Clean Care (single-ply), Comfort Care (two-ply), and Gentle Care (with aloe). So I am spoiled for choice. This was not the case for my mother 70 years ago.

As time permits, I’ve been reading the letters my mother wrote to her mother throughout her married life. During the war years, when rationing was in effect, mention of unavailable items was frequent. Even after the war, in the 1945 and 1946 letters, it was not uncommon to find allusions to hard-to-find or expensive meats or canned foods. And my parents had been trying for many months to get a new car to replace the extremely unreliable 1937 Ford my father had bought from his mother before he was married. But toilet paper?

The first reference I noticed was in a letter dated December 1, 1947. My father’s parents had come to visit us in New Orleans for the week of Thanksgiving, returning home on Sunday, November 30. The next day, Mother summarized the activities of the past few days. On Friday, she wrote, “…while Suzanne was taking her nap, Mama and I went in search of toilet paper. Found some at our Maison’s…”

“Our Maison’s” was the Gentilly branch of Maison Blanche, which had recently opened in a shopping center on Gentilly Boulevard at Frenchman Street, within walking distance of our house (the photo below shows its interior in 1948; the location is now an AutoZone). I can’t imagine having to buy toilet paper in a department store!

Six weeks later, Mother was searching again, writing to her mother on January 16:

While I think of it, how is the toilet paper situation in Tennessee? We are really desperate—have been using face tissues at 26¢ and 31¢ a box. If Daddy could get us some good brand, we’d certainly appreciate it. Even Tom’s wholesale grocery customers can’t get it. I’d rather use Kleenex than the sandpaper brands the drugstores have.

Those prices for Kleenex would be $2.70 and $3.22 in 2018 dollars. A box of Kleenex today costs less than $1.50 but would still be expensive to use as toilet paper.

That the shortage continued is evidenced by a March 13, 1948, letter. My father had had to travel to Biloxi-Gulfport on business (he was an IBM salesman), and Mother writes: “Tom got home from Biloxi last night about 8:45—much earlier than I expected him. He brought me a box of candy and 12 rolls of toilet paper!”

This is certainly something to think about when I find myself dissatisfied because I have to get two-ply instead of single-ply or settle for a bundle that has packages of four or nine rolls instead of my preferred six!

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