Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lay down Sally! (The difference between laying and lying)

Another word I've heard used incorrectly quite a bit is the word "lay down" or "laying down". People generally mean "lie down" or "lying down", but they evidently don't realise that.

To lie down is a verb that means a person or animal is somehow resting horizontally on a surface, be it a mattress, a sofa, or a bed of straw, or other type of surface.  To lay or to lay down are simply not verbs at all, at least not on their own.

I frequently hear people say things like "I was laying on the sofa for a while", or a really popular one is to tell your dog "Go lay down!" Neither of these are correct.  They should say "I was lying on the sofa for a while" and "Go lie down!"

The reason for this is that lying does not require a direct object, whereas laying does. For example:

I'm going to lie down for a nap.

You should lay the book down on the table first.

In the first sentence, you are describing, using verbs, what you will do.  In the second sentence, "the book" is the direct object--you are actually doing something with an object.

Where it becomes complicated is when you switch to past tense.  The verb "to lie" is an irregular verb and takes on the form "lay" in the past tense.  So you wouldn't say "I lied down for a nap" but "I lay down for a nap".

The past tense of "lay" is "laid". So "I laid the book down on the table before going out".

To add to all the fun, the past participle of "lie" is "lain", so "I had lain down for a nap, but the doorbell broke my slumber".

The past participle of "lay" is the same the past tense, "laid", so "I had laid the book down on the table before I went out, and now I can't find it!"

In my examples, I've used both verbs with the preposition "down", but that is not always required.  Consider,

It was lying around here somewhere (not, it was laying around here somewhere)


Lay the rocks over the dirt (not, lie the rocks over the dirt)

These are fun verbs to ponder if you're a grammar geek like me.  I researched this information some time ago because I was curious to know if lain and laid were British and American grammar differences in past participles and past tense, and I learned that I didn't actually realise there was much of a difference between lay and lie, so I was happy I had looked into it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Are you begging the question correctly?

I was guilty of not using this phrase correctly either. Someone corrected me several years ago, and now it has become one of my biggest pet peeves even though I can't claim I always knew how to use it properly. I get that not everyone is going to understand how to use "beg the question" in the right situation, but I do find it frustrating when I watch shows like The Big Bang Theory, where the genius Sheldon often corrects people's grammar, and yet the show has actually had characters using that phrase incorrectly (as well as "the reason is because", but that's for another entry!).

The question here affects not so much grammar as semantics. The verb "to beg the question" is actually a term from philosophy, more specifically the study of logic. "Begging the question" is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself. When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any evidence to demonstrate why the statement is true in the first place.

An example of this would be something like the following:

"Bob is trustworthy because I can trust him."

As you can see, this really isn't quality evidence or proof of Bob's trustworthiness. Moreover, you can also see that in begging the question, there is actually no question involved from a grammatical point of view. There is an implied question about the logic used in this statement, but no one is actually asking a question.

What happens in most cases is that people say "begs the question" when they mean "raises the question".

For example:


"The lack of snow removal on city streets begs the question, where are our property taxes going?" 


"The lack of snow removal on city streets raises the question, where are our property taxes going?"

The former statement is the one you would most typically hear, but it is definitely incorrect.

There's rarely a time when most of us would use "begging the question" in everyday conversation, so just remember, you're more than likely trying to say "raises the question".