Ask the Grammarian: Multiple Hopes, Lay vs. Lie, Basically Useless Vocabulary, and a Stumper

Hello again! Thank you to everyone that submitted questions. This round of questions were really challenging. Let's see how I did:

How Many Hopes?

Our first question comes from Susan LeDrew who wonders if

it is grammatically correct to say to school children, "You are our hopes for the future."

While it seems like a simple enough question, I did have to scratch my head for a bit here. The problem is that the noun hope is intangible and abstract. What is a hope? What are hopes? Hopes can't be counted or measured.

I suppose it's all in the intent. If you mean to say that “our hopes” are instilled upon each individual child, then, yes, it would be correct because the "hopes" are plural and the "children" are plural.

However, I don't think it would be wrong to say “you are our hope for the future,” either. The implication here would be that there is a singular, undefined hope about the future that belongs to the speaker of the sentence. This implies that the "hope" is general and has something to do with the children but isn't dependent on each child.

In either case, the sentence itself can make grammatical sense. It just depends on what you mean. I would, however, suggest revising it completely to something more concrete.

We hope you children can create a better future.

Lay Lie Laid Lay Laid Lain

Lauren Spieller asks:

Can you give us quick and dirty tips (and examples!) for how to use lay/lie, both in the past and present tenses?

Mignon Fogarty is the queen of Quick and Dirty Tips for grammar, but I'll give it a shot. The problem here is that these two verbs are so often confused for one another in songs and in print that it's very, very easy to get them mixed up. This is one of those cases when you can't rely on your linguistic instincts, a.k.a. your ability to discern what sounds correct based on your experience. You must actually learn and memorize these. Then be confident in your knowledge going forward and ignore outside influences that probably have it wrong.

Let's get to it.

The verb to lay means to put or to place something. It is a transitive verb which means it must have a direct object. That means you cannot just lay, you must lay something. One way I remember this is from the phrase “lay down your weapon.” (Yes, I watch a lot of Law and Order.) You have to lay something. You might also remember that chickens lay eggs, which are things. They can't lie eggs; that would be weird.

The verb to lie means to recline. It is an intransitive verb, so it does not take a direct object. That means that the subject of the verb does the action of the verb—which means it must put itself into a reclining position, not be put there by an external subject.

I remember this one by thinking of my grandparents' German Shepard. Though this dog was loved and spoiled beyond belief, I still remember the absolutely forlorn look he got whenever my grandma ordered him to “go lie down!” The dog had to go lie down somewhere and look sad for a few minutes until my grandmother called him over or until he figured she forgot and he got up anyway. I think of this because unlike lay, the dog had to lie down under his own power. With lay, something else has to do the laying. Also, lie and recline have similar vowel sounds, that might help you remember, too.

Here are a couple other examples:

  • Lauren lay the puppies in the basket one by one.

The puppies are the object of the verb to lay and had to be put in the basket by Lauren, the subject of the sentence.

  • The puppies lie in the basket.

In this sentence, the puppies are the subject and are doing the action of the verb to lie. There is no direct object in this sentence.

Ok, so you have that down, but what about past tense?

The past tense of to lay is laid.

  • Lauren laid the puppies in the basket one by one.

The past tense of to lie is lay.

  • The puppies lay in the basket.

Yes, it is confusing that the past tense of one verb looks and sounds just like the present tense of the other verb. In cases like this, I tend to veer away from a list of mnemonics or quick tips because they end up being just as hard to remember correctly as the rule itself. In this case, focus on the one thing that differentiates these two verbs, memorize that, and then no matter what verb tense they show up in, you'll know which is which.

When you lay you have to lay something, but you can lie yourself down.

Just for kicks, here is a chart with all the forms for each verb. Good luck, and don't over think it!

Infinitive

Definition

Simple Present

Simple Past

Past Participle

Present Participle

to lay

to put something down

lay(s)

laid

laid

laying

to lie

to rest or recline

lie(s)

lay

lain

lying


Basically, Interrupted

Maria Fortner wants to know:

Do you put commas before and after the word “basically” when it is the second word in or in the middle of a sentence?

Answer One: When the word basically appears at the beginning of the sentence, it is being used as an introductory element, and it should be set off with a comma.

Frank said he moved to Seattle “to try out cohabitation” with the girlfriend he met on Match.com. Basically, he's never coming back.

Answer Two: When the word basically appears as the second word in the sentence, and it's being used as a nonessential (or parenthetical) element (or interrupter) then it must have a comma before and after.

Frank said he moved to Seattle “to try out cohabitation” with the girlfriend he met on Match.com. Well, basically, he is never coming back.

Answer Three: When the word basically appears as the second word in the sentence, and it's being used as an adverb to modify another part of the sentence, then the comma can be omitted because there is little need to slow the sentence down by using them.

Frank said he moved to Seattle “to try out cohabitation” with the girlfriend he met on Match.com. He's basically never coming back.

Grammarian answer: Eliminate the word basically from your vocabulary and never look back!!!

In all the examples above, the word basically can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence one bit. What does that tell you? It tells you that the word basically is a total waste of ink/bytes. Kill it. Delete it. Forget it ever existed. It's a fluff word that has no caloric value whatsoever.

Stump the Grammarian

I have spent a lot of time studying English grammar and usage, but like all subjects, the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know a damn thing.  This next question has me completely stumped.

Paul DuPont writes:

I've often encountered a particular verb-form in British English. I'm not sure whether it's slang, anachronistic or just a regional thing.

It typically takes the form of "to be" as auxiliary with the simple past form of the verb used as the participle.

  • I entered the room and he was sat there.

I would expect we would use the past progressive in this case, however, this other form is subtly different.

Now it could be that I am an American and not often around British English speakers, but I can honestly say I have never heard this verb construction the way Paul describes. If I did, I probably assumed the speaker (or writer) was a dolt and went on my merry, word-snob way. I obviously have not heard it enough to realize it's "a thing." Even reading Paul's example sentence makes my head hurt. I did Google it, and I came up with the same conclusions—it's likely peculiar to British English, and other people are just as perplexed by it as Paul is.

Have any readers out there heard this particular construction? Comments?

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Andy Wood's picture
Andy Wood September 23, 2013 - 7:30am

As an Englishman, I hope I can shed a bit of light on your problem with the way we use 'sat'. It's easier, and quicker, than using the correct grammar. It's also so common now that it doesn't impede understanding. Most users will know that they are using incorrect speech but not care. With such a range of regional accents in a small place, small grammatical mistakes are the least of our worries when it comes to making ourselves understood!

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong September 23, 2013 - 9:04am

I've never seen anything like that. My guess is it's a mistake. I'd edit to either "I entered the room, and he was seated/sitting there" or "I entered the room, and he sat there."

I'm with you on fluff words, but thanks for the brief mention of introductory elements. So many readers omit commas after introductory elements, and I find them almost essential as a marker for the subject of a sentence.

Julie_Smits's picture
Julie_Smits from Antwerp is reading Stuff September 23, 2013 - 12:10pm

I love 'He was sat there or I was sat there'. It has character, and when you find it in a piece of text, there's no doubt that you have a British narrator or that it takes place in Britain.

 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow September 23, 2013 - 2:12pm

So interesting! I'm sure I've come across the "was sat" construction at some point, but I must have blocked it out because it sounded so wrong.But, you guys tell me it's a real "thing". Is there a particular region in Britain where it's more commonly used?

I will have to listen more closely when I'm listening to British speakers or watching British TV. 

I have noticed that the word "alright" is used as a greeting. I like that. I wonder how long that will take to cross the pond.

Thanks for the input. I love learning about all the ways language morphs.

 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated September 24, 2013 - 4:40am

I've heard this (although it wouldn't be "I entered the room") used occasionally, although I've never seen it in print, with older people from Kentucky. Usually it was not the end of the sentence and always a sign of outrage/annoyance/humor.

...and he was sat there canning the 'matters he stole/even though I'd told him to go on home/till midnight trying to glue it back."

Graham Paul Donovan's picture
Graham Paul Donovan from London is reading Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre September 24, 2013 - 5:12am

@Taylor. I'm from London, and yes we do say "alright" to each other all the time but it's as much of a question as it is a greeting and betrays the British predisposition towards cynicism. It's closer to "how are you?" than it is to "hello" or "hey" but unlike "how are you?" which asks a slightly broader question, "alright?" which is a shortening of "are you alright?" works on the intrinsic British assumption that something is not alright, and is designed to get as quick a clarification on the matter as possible. I'm not saying that every time someone says it that they're thinking that but that's where it comes from.

The 'he was sat there' thing is quite common in speech here but it's unlikely you'd see it in print or on TV unless it was in dialogue or narration that was deliberately designed to reflect that background.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow September 24, 2013 - 12:26pm

Thanks Gary! That's very interesting!

SCAdams's picture
SCAdams January 31, 2016 - 6:59am

I am a poet...and I am struggling with the phrase " Hope lies murdered in the hands of a stranger"...or is it "Hope lays murdered in the hands of a stranger?"  

I look at your wonderful explanations and it seems "lays"  works the correct way?

 

 

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel May 2, 2016 - 2:22am

Only thing I could come up with:

To Lay, is to place (something)

To Lie, I lie, I do it myself.