Editor’s Note: Bear Facts

There are certain words in the English language that seem to be born troublemakers. One of these is bear. It should be noted that I am not referring to the noun; Smokey has enough problems of his own. No, I’m talking about the verb bear. Bear with me while I explain.

The basic meaning of bear is “carry” or “endure.” We bear burdens. We bear responsibility. We bear someone no ill will. Soldiers bear arms. Your physical bearing is your carriage or posture. A mechanical bearing carries and distributes weight. Abstractly, bearing may mean influence or weight: “This has no bearing on the issue.” A compass bearing is a direction; if we lose our bearings, we go astray. In some cases, bear imposes the weight rather than supports it, meaning “press”: “Bear down; you’re making six copies.”

A secondary meaning of bear is “produce” or “yield” or “give birth to.” A tree bears fruit. A woman [after bearing down with each contraction] bears a child.

Pay close attention to that last example, because this is where so many people lose their bearings. A woman carries a child while pregnant; she bears the child when she gives birth. She has then borne the child (borne is the past participle of bear), but the child has been born. The confusion between borne and born is obviously not surprising given the close relationship they bear. But you can avoid error if you just ask yourself whether you mean “carried/produced” or “given birth to.” Another clue: the participle born will always occur with some form of the verb to be (is, was, has been, will be, etc.) and will often be followed by “out of.” (Not to be confused with “borne out by,” where “borne out” means “confirmed,” as in “That conclusion is borne out by the facts presented.”) Some examples taken from my reading:

“It wasn’t romantic, she said, just a dedicated platonic love borne through the decades of friendship.” [Correct: They carried or maintained their love. But their love could also have been born out of their friendship.]

a terrible slight not to be borne [Correct: It could not be endured.]

mosquito-borne diseases [Correct: Mosquitoes carry and spread certain diseases.]

The public library, which became an integral part of American life in the 19th century, was born of the great American idea — of a free marketplace for ideas and material goods. [Correct: The “great American idea” gave birth to the public library.]

one patient in hard labor and another who has borne a dead baby [Correct: The woman has given birth to the baby.]

“Shakespeare and the Folktale: An Anthology of Stories,” which was born out of the course she teaches at Agnes Scott. [Correct: The course was the source that produced the article.]

In reality, the whole project was borne out of frustration. [Incorrect: Frustration gave birth to the project.]

During the plague, these lonely deaths were borne not out of public health protocols but out of sheer terror. [Incorrect: Sheer terror was responsible for the lonely deaths.]

Some tips:

  • If you can substituted “carried” or “yielded,” then “borne” is the right word.
  • “Born” is not the right word unless there is a birthdate involved.

Another confusion arises between the simple past of bear (bore) and the verb bore, meaning to “drill.” I could multiply examples of “His eyes bore into hers for a connection.” The past tense of bore is bored, which is what is called for in this past-tense example.

And then of course, there’s the homophone, as evidenced in this Facebook post: “My writing skills are not the best , so bare with me.” Talk about exposing your ignorance! Unless you are proposing a game of strip poker, please do not make this mistake!

But since we’ve touched on the word bare meaning “reveal” or “expose,” here’s an intriguing example. In this case, the character has concealed from her husband the rape that was the reason for an abortion. She’s now been accused of his murder and has revealed this history to her defense lawyer.

She took his silence as an accusation. “I suppose you think it would have been better if I had borne all to him and told him the truth.”

I could be wrong, but I think what was meant here was “if I had bared all.” I suspect that “bared,” even if spelled correctly, may have sounded so much like “beared” that the author or an editor “corrected” it to “borne.” If that’s the case, then of course neither “born” nor “borne” would have been the right word.

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Editor’s Note: I’m Used to Being Ignored

About six months ago, I was invited to join a Facebook group called “Language Snobs ‘Я’ Us.” The group includes some other copy editors but is mostly made up of people who are serious about correct grammar (in the broadest sense of the word) and enjoy deriding its misuse, as seen in signs (grocer’s apostrophes, for example) and on social media. (Another frequent target of the group is pretentious but illegible script; the members of the group refer to themselves as “snoles” based on the appearance of the word “snobs” in some unfortunate font.) For some reason lost in the mists of time (before I joined, anyway), pirates are also a theme of the group, so it seemed perfect to me to post this cartoon (original seen here):

I added the comment “Fixed it!”

I had not anticipated the backlash of confused and uncomprehending replies. I had thought my point was quite clear, but it seems that it flew right over the heads of most of the group.

The verb use is a very useful one, used in a multitude of ways. (Although management types, apparently feeling use was too pedestrian, have attempted to promote the substitution of utilize, that use has been deservedly ridiculed.) The entry for use in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged is 8½″ long. And that doesn’t count a separate 1″ entry for the participle used, both in its meaning of “partly worn out” or “secondhand” (as in “used car”) and in the sense in which I used it in my title (meaning “accustomed”).

Nowhere in the entry for the verb, however, is there any suggestion that the syntax or conjugation of the verb is different in any of its specialized uses, although the dictionary does note that “used” is pronounced differently when used with “to.” The definition that applies to the example above is entry 1b of the intransitive use of the verb: “used in the past with to to indicate a former state.” The examples given are “winters used to be harder,” “isn’t going to take as long as it used to,” and “didn’t use to have a car.”

Note especially that last example, because it is only when “did” (or in this case “didn’t”) comes into play that we run into trouble. “I used to enjoy [whatever]” becomes “I didn’t use to like [whatever]” or “Did you use to [whatever]?”

In the cartoon example above, there should be no difference in syntax from “What did you use to get the stain out of the carpet?”

To illustrate this using a different verb, consider this sequence:

You say to your wife, “I thought you were going to go to the grocery.”

“I did go,” she replies.

You wonder when she went, so you ask, “When did you go?”

You don’t say, “When did you went?” any more than she would say, “I did went” because “did go” = “went.” So, by analogy, you should not say, “What did you used to do?”

Because the necessity for this kind of construction occurs so rarely, it is hardly surprising that it hardly ever appears correctly. But I did find two encouraging examples. I’ve just finished reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, edited by Stephen W. Hines. It’s a collection of columns Wilder (writing as Mrs. A. J. Wilder) wrote for the Missouri Ruralist magazine between 1911 and 1924. In a column published June 15, 1921, she wrote:

Did you ever hear anyone say, “I don’t know what the world is coming to; people didn’t use to do that way; things were different when I was young,” or words to that effect? [Emphasis added]

And in a New Yorker video, “For the Love of Bread,” a closed caption reads, “Bread has become a menu item in a way that it didn’t use to be.”

It’s impossible to be sure what the speaker actually said, but at least the caption writer got it right!

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Local Ups and Downs


Until quite recently, the lot shown above, on Bayview facing Knoll Park, was dominated by the immense oak tree shown in the rear of the photo. The property owner had long intended to build a personal residence on the lot, and now the time had come. Unfortunately, no house plan could be found, working within the required setbacks, that would work around the tree, which was really just smack dab in the middle of the lot. Even if a house could be built around it, the owner learned, the tree would probably die, and then it would be that much harder to deal with. So the tree must be removed. The two trees at the front of the lot were deemed to be “declining,” so they were also doomed. The result, after filling the immense pit left by digging out the tree roots, was the cleared lot shown below. It was a shame to lose this magnificent tree, but there was no alternative.

In brighter news, however, on another lot just over a block away, at the corner of Bayview and St. James, a small cottage changed hands. The original cottage was a neat one, with a tidy yard and tasteful seasonal decorations, as seen in these Google Street View shots, but it was a bit gloomy.

The first thing the new owners did, however, was to clear out some of the vegetation, which opened up the lot to more sun and air. After considerable rehabilitation, including a new roof and a paint job and opening up the front porch, the house looked much more inviting, especially after the chain link fence was removed and replaced with new landscaping and a post and wire fence designed to encourage climbing blooms.

A saying I learned from one of my clients (it inspired the title of her book) is “What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.” While it is natural to mourn our losses, especially of beautiful natural features, it is also important to recognize progress where it occurs.

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Small Victories

As more and more of us are confined to our homes, the Internet has become more vital as a means of communication and socializing. Since I work from home all the time, this is nothing new for me, but its importance has become intensified. In such a situation, small annoyances are often magnified. For example, our Internet connection has always been a bit dodgy, but now, given the added pressure of millions of people working from home, the Internet seems really stressed, and my connection drops much more frequently. Needless to say, this is frustrating if I’m trying to send an email and disastrous if I’m logged into a Microsoft Teams meeting.

But even as small annoyances loom larger, small victories can be even more satisfying. Aside from routine grocery shopping, the only time I get out of the house is for a daily walk of about two miles around our neighborhood and small town. Since August 2012, these walks have been made wearing a GPS watch, the Garmin Forerunner 405CX. I’m actually on my second watch of this model because the first one died in 2018 and was replaced. In common with many Garmin models, this watch uses ANT+™ technology to communicate wirelessly with an ANT stick™ that plugs into a USB port. When this works correctly, it is transparent to the user and is rather like magic. It requires Garmin Express software installed on the computer, but usually it isn’t necessary to open this application to upload the watch data; just place the watch near the ANT stick, and eventually the watch displays “Transferring Data.” When it shows “Transfer Complete,” there will be a popout Windows notification that the user can click on to go to Garmin Connect, the website where the recent activity is displayed.

The page shows various statistics uploaded from the watch, along with locally sourced weather data, and has descriptive fields that allow the user to name the activity, describe its type and purpose, comment on it, etc. It also displays the route on a map and indicates elevation changes. The Garmin Connect “dashboard” displays cumulative data for all activities, including the number of miles on the selected pair of shoes.

Needless to say, all of this is interesting and useful. On March 26, however, it all stopped working. It may have been just coincidence that Garmin Express had just downloaded and installed an update, but my watch refused to sync. Garmin Express would make a valiant effort but repeatedly reported failure to sync to Garmin Connect. This was not unprecedented; sometimes in the past, it had balked for a day or two and then eventually sent the data. Sometimes I would have to select Force Send to resend all the data in the watch history, which was tedious but ultimately successful. But this time nothing worked. Day after day, nothing worked. I googled for solutions and tried everything recommended, including deleting old activities from the watch. Finally, in desperation, after recording the watch data and manually adding it to Garmin Connect (which produced pages with no map or weather data but at least added the mileage to the shoe count), I deleted all the activities in the watch. Still nothing. Needless to say, I was very frustrated.

Then on Saturday, April 4, my husband, who earned a fully paid-for doctorate in 1975, received a communication from the U.S. Department of Education purporting to be “Information about your federal student loan.” I assumed this was junk mail—we frequently get spam calls about student loans—but when my husband opened it, he realized it was in reference to student loans our son had taken out (which I had previously been unaware of). So he called our son, described the issue, and promised to send him the paperwork (which informed him that “we’re postponing your student loan payments due to a natural disaster or pandemic”—undoubtedly news he was glad to hear!). My husband had assumed he would mail the papers but, realizing we were out of stamps, said to me: “You can scan documents to email, right?” Indeed, with my trusty Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500, I have scanned many a document to email. I opened the paper feeder on the ScanSnap and waited for the Taskbar icon to show that it was connected. But somehow the connection had been lost. Seriously?

The rest of the day and even in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, I tried everything. To its credit, Fujitsu has very detailed and specific online support documents about this problem, but I followed all instructions without success. (The only one I balked at was disconnecting all other USB devices—which include two printers, another scanner, and of course my keyboard and mouse!) At this point I was seriously discouraged. It seemed like my technology was really conspiring against me.

Clearly a Bigger Hammer was required. I really, really hate installing software. It seems there are so many things that can go wrong. And if uninstalling/reinstalling doesn’t solve the problem and possibly makes it worse, then I’ve wasted a lot of time for nothing. By Monday (after a trip to the post office to buy stamps so I could mail the document), I had decided to bite the bullet. On Tuesday I uninstalled Garmin Express, then redownloaded it and reinstalled it, allowed it to install updates, etc., then held my breath while I reintroduced my watch to the ANT stick. Success! It immediately uploaded the four days’ activity recorded in the watch since I’d cleared the history, and I was able to delete those activities from the ones I’d uploaded manually. I’m almost afraid to say so, but the watch has behaved flawlessly every day since.

I didn’t want to tempt fate by doing too much in one day, so I waited till Wednesday to uninstall and reinstall ScanSnap Manager. That was much more involved, especially all the updates, but the bottom line is that the scanner is now connected again as well. Small victories indeed, but it is amazing what a difference they have made in my outlook on life!

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A New Women’s Movement?

You probably recognize this symbol:


As Wikipedia explains it, “According to tradition, ancient Christians, during their persecution by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Christ, used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes.” The shape of the fish represents the Greek word ἰχθύς or ΙΧΘΥΣ, which is interpreted as an acronym for Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), or “Jesus Christ, Son of God, [Our] Savior.” You may have seen it on cars as a bumper sticker or magnetic badge in this form:

Ichthus logo

This revival of the icon seems to have started in the 1970s. Some secular humanists use this logo instead:

Darwin fish

On another fish-related topic, you may have heard that the word “ghoti” is pronounced “fish.” The explanation is that gh is pronounced as in rough, enough, and so on, o as in women, and ti as in any word ending in –tion. [A competing version is the “silent ghoti,” in which gh is pronounced as in through, o as in people, t as in ballet, and I as in business.]

So I would like to propose another fish icon:

Ghoti fish

In this fish, the gh is pronounced as in tough, the o as in women, and the ti as in action. This therefore represents Tough Women Action, a proposed new movement appropriate for Women’s History Month and honoring all the tough women who stuck it out as long as they did in the Democratic primary race.


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Editor’s Note: The Invisible Work of the Copy Editor

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

The life of a copy editor is difficult because it is not possible to read anything without mentally (and often physically) correcting it. The past week has been especially painful because of the discouraging tendency of the public prints to cast doubt on the historicity of actual events by claiming that they “may not have” happened but for the occurrence of other events (see “Editor’s Note: Did It Happen or Not?“). But I also had an experience this week that not only reminded me forcefully of the need for copy editors but also reinforced my gratitude for them.

Lately I’ve been binging on Sanditon. For those who don’t know, “Sanditon” is an unfinished novel by Jane Austen. She began it shortly before her death in 1817 and had completed 11½ chapters before being forced by illness to abandon it. Her working title was “The Brothers,” but her family dubbed it “Sanditon” (the name of the town that provides the setting and is almost a character in the novel). It was first published in 1925 under the name Fragment of a Novel.

In her opening chapters, Austen sets the scene and introduces the main characters, whose salient personality traits are already evident, so the reader has some idea what to expect, but the ultimate direction of the plot is, of course, anybody’s guess. And there have been quite a few authors who have taken on the challenge. Wikipedia lists more than half a dozen “continuators,” as well as other works inspired by the book. My interest was piqued by the ITV television adaptation by Andrew Davies, recently aired on PBS as part of its Masterpiece series. As was the case previously with the Masterpiece adaptation of Northanger Abbey, viewing the series sent me back to the source, confident that the salaciousness of the TV version would not be found in the original.

In this instance, my first resort was the version by “Jane Austen and Another Lady” (later identified as Marie Dobbs, aka Anne Telscombe), which was the only version currently available at my public library. I’ve subsequently explored the other options at Amazon (finding that one is not only out of print but available only in a single copy for $1,099.99, and another is entirely unavailable). I’m currently slogging through one (described by its author as a “fairytale”) that is so badly written that I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end.

But the most intriguing offshoot is the adaptation by Reginald Hill in The Price of Butcher’s Meat (originally published in the U.K. as A Cure for All Diseases). In his dedication “To Janeites everywhere,” Hill acknowledges that “the seeds of this present novel were sown” at a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, of which the theme was “Sanditon—A New Direction?” Presented as a part of Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe detective series, the story has Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel (who was blown up by a bomb in the previous installment) convalescing in the Avalon Clinic in Sandytown. Meanwhile, Charlotte Heywood (the heroine of Sanditon) has been brought to Sandytown by Tom and Mary Parker in a way that almost exactly parallels Austen’s story and is being introduced by them to Lady Denham, her nephew Sir Edward Denham and niece Esther Denham, and Clara Brereton, the “poor relation” Lady Denham has taken in. We also meet the rest of the Parker family, including the precocious daughter of the house, Minnie, and Tom’s siblings, including the dashing Sidney Parker, whom Austen seems to have poised to be the hero of the piece (and doubtless Charlotte’s intended mate). Needless to say, Hill takes the story in quite a different direction from that envisioned by the author (including a murder that brings Peter Pascoe on the scene).

As the book begins, however, the reader does not find the usual third-person narration. Instead, the story is told through the eyes of Andy Dalziel, speaking into a digital voice recorder (which he has dubbed Mildred after a tiresome aunt), given to him by the head of the clinic for recording his thoughts and feelings, and those of Charlotte “Charley” Heywood, whose perceptive observations are recorded in emails to her sister Cassie, a nurse in Africa. The latter I found rather trying because Charlotte, although she is represented as a psychology graduate doing research for a postgraduate thesis on “the psychology of alternative therapies,” presents herself as semi-literate, entirely omitting apostrophes (in both contractions and possessives) and spelling every ei/ie word with the vowels reversed.

Because I had returned the library book that contained Austen’s original text, I downloaded, for reference, a 99¢ Kindle version of the “Complete Works of Jane Austen,” which includes the text of “Sanditon.” Although the edition does not so stipulate, I assume that the text is taken from a Project Gutenberg transcription, presumed to be literatim. So imagine my astonishment to find such passages as this:

He took the peices of paper as he spoke, and, having looked them over, added, “I beleive I can explain it, Sir.”

Sure enough, Austen consistently spells “believe” with the vowels reversed. She also, like Charley, sprinkles dashes throughout her dialog. And she capitalizes words almost at random, as in this opening paragraph:

A Gentleman and a Lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings and E. Bourne, being induced by Business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough Lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand. The accident happened just beyond the only Gentleman’s House near the Lane – a House which their Driver, on being first required to take that direction, had conceived to be necessarily their object and had with most unwilling Looks been constrained to pass by. He had grumbled and shaken his shoulders and pitied and cut his Horses so sharply that he might have been open to the suspicion of overturning them on purpose (especially as the Carriage was not his Master’s own) if the road had not indisputably become worse than before, as soon as the premises of the said House were left behind – expressing with a most portentous countenance that, beyond it, no wheels but cart wheels could safely proceed.

Or this description of Mr. Heywood:

The accident had been discerned from a Hayfield adjoining the House they had passed. And the persons who approached were a well-looking, Hale, Gentlemanlike Man, of middle age, the Proprietor of the Place, who happened to be among his Haymakers at the time, and three or four of the ablest of them summoned to attend their Master – to say nothing of all the rest of the field, Men, Women and Children, not very far off.

Even allowing for the difficulty of distinguishing capitals from lowercase in cursive writing, this is distracting. It is all very quaint, but if this is typical of Austen’s manuscripts, I am pleased that her publisher edited her books before printing!

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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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