Lay or Lie – Does it Matter?


“I’m going to go lay down.”

“Me and Susie went to town.”

“You want to go with?”

My grandmother was an English teacher in an era when women were expected to be wives and mothers. She was also a wife and mother, but it is her professional response with which I am concerned in this essay.  Solecisms—errors in the use of language—such as those above undoubtedly have Grandmother whirling in her grave, and I must confess they set my own teeth on edge.

When I correct these errors in my grandchildren, I sometimes hear “What difference does it make?” in return. While it is a parent’s (and grandparent’s) privilege to teach their offspring—including those one generation removed—it occurred to me that some of the things I was taught in my day were not useful, not true, distorted in the teaching or are now out of date. So I have given careful consideration to the matter of grammar and the associated matter of spelling; my conclusion is: yes, it does matter, and yes, it does make a difference.

The impression one makes on other people can affect whether one is selected for a job, a friendship or even a marriage partner. Speech, grammar, penmanship and spelling are all part of that impression. And when using the typed written word, the wonders of Spell-check do not save you if you meant to write “they’re” and typed in “there” instead. You need to know the difference, if only for proof-reading purposes, just as you need to know when you mean to use the contraction “it’s” rather than the possessive “its.” There is a church in our area which has a reader board; passersby have been treated to such errors as “devine” instead of divine, “hop” instead of hope” and “sever” instead of “severe.” I don’t know if the problem is the person who creates the message in the first place or the person putting up the letters, but something is definitely getting lost in the translation. I routinely see ads on Craigslist which are so poorly spelled it is nearly impossible to understand what is being offered.

The purpose of language is to communicate. Clarity and exactitude—both of which contribute to greater understanding between humans—are easily lost when language degrades. Certainly new words must be added; computers, and all of the terms related to them, did not exist in the world in which my grandmother learned to speak. And language does change over the years. The English of Shakespeare’s day, while still recognizably English, contains many terms which sound florid or have no meaning in the modern world.

A facility with language and an extensive vocabulary allows you to write for publication, to win spelling bees, to sort out inflammatory rhetoric from substantive ideas, to speak with precision and to swear creatively—this last being one of the more entertaining things to do with language. There is a huge difference between repetitive use of the F-word and an artistic tirade which describes manure as “a substance emanating from the north end of a south-bound mule”, incorporates such terminology as “may the devil make a ladder of your backbone” or describes a miscreant as a “son of a biscuit eater.” The latter expression, by the way, is not a substitution for the common blasphemy regarding a dog of the female persuasion, but a curse used by pirates for someone whose sailor father was unmarried.

See what you can do with proper English?

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