Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's no lie that this the last I'll be laying down

A few last thoughts on that lay/lie topic from last week:

Some months back during an interview on The Tonight Show Mindy Kaling (from The Office) said "laying" when from a stricter language standpoint she meant "lying." I barely recall that from seeing it, to be honest. However, the next day a friend who'd seen that said "lay" but immediately corrected herself and said "lie." I said nothing, and actually smiled approvingly. However, she felt self-consciously defensive and brought up the Kaling interview and noted how the fact that Kaling was an Ivy League graduate (originally placed at Harvard, then revised to Dartmouth) and the actress had said "lay" it was okay.

The friend was being facetious, of course, but it does bring up an intriguing question: If intelligent, highly educated people are using a term in a non-conventional way, at what point must the mavens of language accept the word's definition has changed? All words in English are only there because people started using them, they meant what the persons using them meant, and they became codified. Even a cursory analysis of the language shows how words come to be used in different ways over time, how slang or informal terminology gains academic acceptance.

Ultimately, if what one says conveys one's meaning to the listener effectively (without need for the listener to pause and have to interpret what was said in order to cull that meaning or ask for clarification), there's little room for criticism.

Communication is always about knowing who one's audience is. And further trying to figure out if there's any sticklers about proper language usage in the bunch who may give one a hard time.


For those on the receiving end of such a stickler pointing out a linguistic faux pas you've committed there's an understandable defensive reaction you likely have in that scenario. You want to respond with a clever retort that cuts at the stickler but probably comes out more like "you smell bad and your mother dresses you funny" (which, if literally said, would in turn elicit a further clarification from the stickler that his/her mother dresses him/her funnily, and not achieve the desired result). Something worth keeping in mind when someone corrects you:

If the person dwells on a very minor error that one would really have to be looking for in order to notice, while appearing to miss the point of your overall thesis: He/she is an a-hole. Don't give it another thought other than perhaps to try to avoid repeating the error again (if for no other reason than to avoid the scenario occurring again in the future). Don't bother with a retort (as much as you'll want to do so); at best that leads to a lose-lose result.

If the person offers the correction in the spirit of improving the presentation of your thesis, demonstrating a grasp of what you were trying to say and suggesting it would be even stronger without any errors to distract the audience, then you should take the remark as a compliment. The stickler considers you to be worthy of the effort of being helped, that you have exhibited the intelligence where the suggestion may be regarded as attempting to enhance what you already have. In short, you're not an idiot who is a lost cause; there's hope for you.

Now, you may think it's somewhat self-serving for those sticklers to try to make you more like they are, but that's not the case; it's completely self-serving for them. They have much to gain from having others who share their grasp of the subject—perhaps not to the same extent, but at least to a realistic level. A world where people who don't make these common errors is a world where they don't have to keep noticing and mentioning those errors. It's in their best interest more so than that of anyone being helped.

Only jerks want people to stay uninformed and making mistakes for them to harp on.


Even in works composed by ostensibly professional writers the instances of the incorrect word being used in that context; I recall an episode of Psych (a show that exhibits a certain level of intelligence, in my humble opinion—not erudite but at least clever) the main character uttered a line about needing to "lay" down and I recall mentally bristling at that for a moment. (Certainly the actor could have simply misspoken his line, and it wasn't deemed important enough to re-shoot the scene over that one faux pas, but that perhaps would be worse: There the correct term was in the script—so someone involved with the production conceivably would have known it was an error—but it was not considered worthy of making correct.)

Then recently I happened to see an episode of Wizards of Waverly Place (yes, the tween sitcom on the Disney Channel) where tween superstar Selena Gomez spoke a line about needing to "go lie down" and inside I felt a tiny shred of pride; here was a member of the upcoming generation who was capable of at least saying the line as it was (presumably) written (or where it was a production that made her say it right in the scene that made the final cut). There was hope for the future, after all.

(Let's not get into why I was watching that. It's not so much a matter of embarrassment; it's more that the party who made me watch it may not want that aspect revealed.)


  1. I heard grammar experts have trouble getting laid.


So, what do you think?