Grammatical Housecleaning

Here are a few lesser-known grammar rules that everyone loves to break:

Lie vs. Lay

When to use the verb “lie”:

I am lying on the ground.  (Present tense)

The book lies at the foot of the stairs. (Present tense)

I lay on the ground. (Past tense of “lie”)

The book lay at the foot of the stairs. (Past tense of “lie”)

Sleeping Beauty has lain in her palace crypt for a century. (Another form of past tense. Its name doesn’t matter in order to understand it.)

She had lain in her palace crypt for a century when she was awoken by the Prince.  (“)

In summary: Use the verb “lie” when a subject is acting on its own, not acting on an object.  Lay is also the past tense of “lie.”  It would be a lot easier to understand if it weren’t, but it is.

When to use the verb “lay”:

He lays the book down on the counter and looks up at me, giving me his full attention. (Present tense).

I am laying myself down to sleep. (Present tense. This cheating use of “myself” as an object here tricks people into thinking they should use “lay” all the time.)

He laid the book down on the counter and looked up at me. (Past tense. Note: it’s not “lay”. Really.)

He has mislaid his glasses.

In summary: Use the verb “lay” when there’s an object, something being acted on.  And the past tense of lay is laid.

– – –

What to do about French accents.

When referring to someone’s fiancé(e), know this rule:

A fiancé is a man.  A fiancée is a woman.

Each time I see this wrong (even in official places of print, such as just yesterday), it is always to comic effect.

– – –

Old, Intimate English.

We are a bit disadvantaged in English these days because we do not differentiate you (singular) and you (plural) or you (informal, intimate) and you (formal, distant) very well.  However, we used to have two forms. They look like this:

–                        Plural        Singular/Intimate

Subject:               Ye               Thou

Object/Dative:   You           Thee

Possessive:         Your          Thy/Thine

For example:

If ye know what is good for you, ye will watch yourself and your kin.

If thou knowest what is good for thee, thou wilt watch thyself and thy kin.

I don’t really care about the ye/you/your.  Dialects would have you saying things like, “if ye know what is good for ye” and sounding like a pirate.  But if you read the Bible, ye/you/your is what you will find instead.

My complaint is more with thou/thee/thy mistakes.  Every time I read a book where the author attempts to use this old, intimate language, (yes, even traditionally published ones) they get these simple grammatical rules wrong.  The only time I have ever seen an author get thou/thee/thy right is Cecilia Dart-Thornton‘s Bitterbynde trilogy.

You will also note that “thou” takes a different verb form than the ones we use regularly.  My advice?  If you don’t know, look it up.

– – –

Any grammar questions? I am happy to try and answer them.


2 responses to “Grammatical Housecleaning

  • Mars C

    Thanks for this. I have actually been thinking about this since you corrected the family member at the table.

    And just to clarify, “thou” *is* the informal “you” in English, right? Or otherwise it would not be “*Your* Majesty”? I keep hearing people say that “thou” is the formal because it’s what’s used in prayers. German uses “du” with the -st ending in prayers, but “du” with “-st” is the *informal* “you” in German.

    • Laura

      Brief answer: “Thou” is informal and intimate, close language. “You” is formal.

      “Thou” only sounds formal and distant because it’s old and unfamiliar. And the people who say this misunderstand the language or haven’t stopped to consider it.

      So, anytime someone tells you to pray with formal language because “thou” sounds formal, you can remember that “thou” is actually informal and intimate. You can also remember that Christ used informal language when He prayed. Informal, intimate, close language, with great love and respect.

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