No lie, understanding English ain't easy for everyone

Bill Duncan<br>


For the Capital Press

Here I lie, or is it lay? Confound English. But then who hasn't confused lie and lay?

The last time I wrote this column from this position was two weeks ago, and I said I'd be out of the hospital in a couple of days. I lied.

There you go again. This lie means to fib. With so many lays and lies to deal with, I turned to my go-to-grammarian, Patricia O'Conner and her grammarphobe's guide, "Woe is I."

In simple terms, Patricia explains, to lie means to recline, which at the moment I'm doing. Lay, on the other hand, is the place one reclines, which is a bed in a ward at the Veterans Administration hospital.

I will make no promises on my release. The doctor says not until I've recovered from whatever it was that struck me down.

I'm from a generation that went to grammar school from the first grade until the eighth. When we matriculated into high school, grammar lessons didn't end. In fact, they got harder.

Where was Patricia O'Conner in my school days? "English today isn't what it was 100 years ago and it's not what it will be 100 years from now," she writes, explaining "we make up rules when we need them and discard them when we don't."

Actually, English happened 1,500 years ago when the German tribes, Angles and Saxons, invaded England, a Celtic-speaking land already colonized by Latin-speaking Romans. Within a few hundred years of taking a word here and there from other languages, English became the rich broth it is today.

This borrowing gave English the largest lexicon of any modern language. Along with that came some screwy rules. Let's admit it, English is a crazy language.

One of my constant struggles is with the words "that" or "which." O'Conner calls this the "which trials," but does an excellent job of clearing up the mystery.

"If you can drop the clause and not lose the point of the sentence, use 'which.' If you can't, use 'that.' One more thing," she says, "a 'which' clause goes inside commas, a 'that' clause doesn't."

She provides a little memory aid: "Commas, which cut the fat, go with which, never with that."

Every newspaper editor's challenge is to hammer into the heads of reporters the difference between its (a pronoun) and it's (a contraction of it is.)

Edwin Newman and myself have long fought a seemingly futile attempt to eliminate the word pretty, as in "pretty awful," "pretty much," and other phrases not so pretty. KVAL-TV weatherman Seth Wayne can't seem to give a weathercast without a pretty or two.

One of the chapters in O'Conner's book is called "death sentences," a long list of meaningless words and phrases that once were clever figures of speech but over time became the lard of language. The one I see often is a car or a house being totally destroyed. It is either destroyed or it isn't.

Of course, I couldn't close this column without referring to what has happened to spelling. In the printed word today it seems to be non-existent, in my opinion because we are relying too heavily on the spell-checker.

Watching "Wheel of Fortune" the other night, Pat Sajak cheated the contestants by having a misspelled work in the puzzle. The final puzzle should have two words, but the puzzle designer misspelled it as one. The word? One of my fingernail-scraping-on-the-blackboard spelling demons -- all right. "Wheel of Fortune" spelled it "alright."

So here I lay and I don't lie.

Bill Duncan can be reached by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, Ore. 97470.

Recommended for you