Columns > Published on September 23rd, 2013

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!



Simple Present

Simple Past

Past Participle

Present Participle

to lay

to put something down





to lie

to rest or recline





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 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 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 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?

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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