Search Results for: we get lay lie wrong a lot
We get several emails a day from folks who want to correct our grammar. Many start like this:
“Would you please inform [insert name of NPR journalist] that to say [insert mistake, often about “lie” or “lay”] is incorrect.” Then they usually question the quality of our educations.
We recently got a warmer wag of a finger. Jarrod Jackson in Audience Relations passed along an actual letter – on paper – from 12-year-old Sylvia Seay of Crozet, Va. She chided us just a bit while also being absolutely charming, at least in the eyes of many in the newsroom.
Sylvia is a fan of NPR, but she has an issue:
“I have noticed that you refer to parents as ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers,’ rather than ‘moms’ and ‘dads.’ Despite this, children are still dubbed ‘kids.’ …
“I find this improper because the definition for ‘kid’ in Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary is as follows: ‘A young goat, or various related animals.’
“A child does not fall under this category. I myself am a child in 8th grade and of twelve years. I would suggest another term in place of ‘kid,’ such as: child, youth, younger population, teen, minor, or whippersnapper (haha).”
A search of NPR.org turns up about 1,300 mentions of “kids” in the past year and 1,400 of “children.”
The numbers wouldn’t have been that close, I bet, a few decades ago. I told Sylvia in an email that I remember being admonished by an editor nearly 40 years ago. “Children are not ‘kids,’” he said.
But, I added, “over time, the word has become more accepted.”
Perhaps we can put some of the blame on Madison Avenue. Remember that Armour hot dogs commercial from the ‘60s and ‘70s?
I also told Sylvia that:
“You’ve touched on an issue we deal with every day. We want to be careful with our words and we try not to make grammatical mistakes. But we also want to be conversational and ‘sound like America.’ English is a living language and we change with the times. That said … ‘kids’ is a word that works better in fun, or lighter, stories. A guideline might be that if you wouldn’t use the words ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ then ‘kids’ probably isn’t appropriate either.”
Now, if only more of our language police were like Sylvia. She’s a good … person.
(“Memmos;” March 15, 2016)
We speak and write well most of the time.
There are, however, words and phrases that trip us up. Listeners, readers and our colleagues cringe at the mistakes.
This is going to be a living post. We’re starting with some of the common mistakes. There are some links to where you can get help on the proper usages. We’ll add to the list as suggestions — perhaps we should say “complaints” – come in. The hope is that if the problem cases are identified, they’ll become less common as times goes on.
– Advance planning: One of many pleonasms we should avoid.
– Anniversary: It is redundant to say “one-year” or “five-year” or “10-year” … “anniversary.”
– Begs the question: If you think that means “raises the question,” you will incur the wrath of dozens or more audience members.
– But: It’s a little word we use far too often and in ways we shouldn’t.
-- Countless: Do you really mean there are “too many to count?” Or that there’s an “indefinitely large number?” Should you be saying “hundreds” or “thousands?”
– Data: At NPR, we use plural verbs and pronouns when referring to data — unless, that is, we’re confident we’re using the word as a collective noun. Tip: If you can substitute the word “information,” that’s a sign you’re using “data” as a collective noun. If the word “numbers” is the proper substitute, than you need plural verbs and pronouns.
– Farther and further: Use “farther” when discussing distances. “Further” is for issues involving matters of degree.
– Fewer or less? Do you choose your supermarket based on what the sign says over the express aisle? Some people do. “Fewer” is the word to use when things can be counted. “Less” is to be used when when you’re talking about mass quantities.
– Interpreters and translators: An interpreter turns spoken words into another language. A translator works with written words.
– Lecterns and podiums: You stand on a podium. You put your notes on a lectern, which you sit or stand behind.
– Marine, sailor, soldier: A Marine is not a soldier or a sailor. A sailor is not a Marine or a soldier. A soldier is not a sailor or a Marine. Be careful when referring to them.
– Media: NPR treats “media” as a plural.
– Percent and percentage point: When comparing changes in two percentages, the difference is expressed in “percentage points.” For example, if 36% of Little Valley Central School’s class of ’76 show up at next year’s reunion, that will be an increase of 5 percentage points from the 31% turnout 10 years ago. Attendance, though, will go up 15%. That’s because the 15 who come next year would mark a 15% increase from the 13 who attended in ’06.
– Reticent and reluctant: They do not mean the same thing. Webster’s defines reticent as “habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn” and “having a restrained, quiet or understated quality.”
– Shrink, shrank and shrunk; sink, sank and sunk: William Safire weighed in on these words back in 1995. Tip: The movie should have been called “Honey, I Shrank the Kids.”
– Vast majority: The best advice is to just not say it. You’ll probably be wrong. Use facts instead.
(Memmos; Nov. 3, 2015)
We’re obsessed with our buts.
At least, that’s what I’ve been told by more than one person in the newsroom.
The problem is that we try to insert too many of them into places they don’t belong. We use but to signal a conflict that doesn’t exist or when the conjunction should be “and.”
I asked Paul Soucy, a veteran copy editor and former colleague, to send me a note he wrote for the staff at USA Today a decade or so ago. Here are excerpts from the memo he titled, “But. Why?”
“One objection is mainly stylistic. An over-reliance on but — not just as a word but as a rhetorical device — results in a story that reads like a Ping-Pong match:
– “A, but B.
– “C, but D.
– “E, but F. …
“… all the way to the end.”
“The other major objection to but is linguistic. … Without getting too grammar-y, let’s just say that but is best used to illustrate contradiction, not just contrast. What comes after but should have some impact on what comes before but; it shouldn’t just be something different.
“We run a lot of sentences constructed like this one: ‘Chet has a red Ford, but Ned has a blue Toyota.’
“Why but? There’s contrast in this sentence, but no contradiction. The fact that Ned has a blue Toyota has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that Chet has a red Ford. … If there is no contradiction, there’s no need for but.
“We could just as easily say … ‘Chet has a red Ford and Ned has a blue Toyota.’ [Or] ‘Chet has a red Ford. Ned has a blue Toyota.’ “
Paul finished with three tips:
– “The troublesome buts will usually jump out at you. The best buts are invisible.”
– “Not sure whether a but belongs? Try just taking it out.”
– “If the sentence can be written without the but, perhaps it should be.”
If you’ve read this far, you may have a song in your head: Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction.”
This post also may have brought back memories of last year’s nagging about sentences that start with “so.” If you haven’t read that one, please do. We’re still “soing” a lot.
Other language issues we’ve droned on about include:
With that, I’ll butt out.
(Memmos; Oct. 22, 2015)
Did the “White House intruder” make it further or farther than was first thought?
Despite what we’re hearing members of Congress say this morning or what has been said on our airwaves a couple times, the intruder made it farther than was first reported — not further.
Think of it this way:
If it’s clear you’re talking about distance, you’re focusing on how far someone or something has gone. Some grammarians say either word can be used, but the trend in recent decades has been to suggest that farther is the better word in such cases.
Further is the right word when you’re not discussing distance. For example: “Memmott always takes these grammar discussions further than he should.”
There are all sorts of situations where things aren’t so obvious. If you’ve read 25 more pages of a book than your partner, are you farther or further along? There’s a measurement involved, but it’s not a distance. The guidance in that case is to use further.
Listeners raised the further/farther issue. As some of our other recent notes about language underscore, some in the audience listen very carefully. We usually find they’re right to have been concerned:
(Memmos; Sept. 30, 2014)
Several things should be said about this week’s reports from Chris Arnold and ProPublica’s Paul Kiel. Their stories about debt collection and the seizure of people’s wages and bank accounts have been illuminating, compelling and at points heart-breaking.
Some listeners, though, can’t get past the way we sprinkled the word “garnish” into the reports.
“This may be a minor thing, but I am a stickler,” writes one of the dozen or so people we’ve heard from so far. “Basically, [the story's] headline is saying that millions of Americans had parsley (or some other garnish) thrown at them. This has always been a tricky bit of grammar, not many people realize there is a huge difference. Please use ‘garnishee’ or ‘garnisheed’ when speaking of wage garnishment.”
As has been noted before (“I Won’t Lie To You, We Get Lay Wrong A Lot“), “many in NPR’s audience (radio and online) pay very close attention to our grammar.”
But, English is a living language. In this case, the critics are trying to enforce a rule that no longer applies. Our go-to dictionary (Webster’s New World College, fourth edition) says “garnishee” is now rarely used as a transitive verb in the U.S. “Garnish” is the verb to use, Webster’s says.
This note isn’t meant to be a dictum about the use of the word garnish. It is intended to remind us about the close attention listeners and readers pay to the words we use. We may disagree with their opinions, but we can admire their dedication and learn from their messages.
Plus, their emails do add some flavor to our day.
(Memmos; Sept. 16, 2014)
What are the most common emails to our corrections inbox? (Besides those accusing us of favoring one side or the other in whatever is the hot debate of the day.)
They’re the ones that go something like this:
“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise [insert name of NPR staffer here] of the difference between ‘to lay’ and ‘to lie.’ It should be ‘if everybody is lying low’ not ‘laying low.’ “
“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise Mr. Clapton of the difference between ‘lie down’ and ‘lay down.’ It should be ‘lie down Sally’ not ‘lay down Sally.’ “
Many grammarians have posted about lie vs. lay. The University of Kansas has guidance under the headline “You’ll lay an egg if you don’t lie down.”
Arizona State has guidance and a practice exercise here.
The Associated Press begins its style guide entry this way:
“The action word is lay. It takes a direct object. Laid is the form for its past tense and its past participle. Its present participle is laying. Lie indicates a state of reclining along a horizontal plane. It does not take a direct object. Its past tense is lay. Its past participle is lain. Its present participle is lying. When lie means to make an untrue statement, the verb forms are lie, lied, lying.”
I bring this up for two reasons.
1. We get on average several emails a week about it.
2. It underscores something: Many in NPR’s audience (radio and online) pay very close attention to our grammar. While it’s true that we want to sound conversational and that some grammatical rules are being bent all the time across the nation, it does offend some of our most dedicated fans when we get things wrong.
Note: This is a bad thing for a Standards & Practices editor to admit — I’m not a grammarian. I’m in the camp that needs to look some words up every time I use them (principal? or principle?). Or, I turn to some of the better linguists in the room. There’s somebody who can help on each desk, show and online team. The librarians are here for us too.
There, I’ve put my cards on the table. (Notice how I avoided the whole lay vs. lie issue there.)
(Memmos; Aug. 29, 2014)