Monday, November 24, 2008

As I lied dying

What's generally termed "confusion"* between lie and lay is widespread and has been for a long time. It's more accurate to say that the semantic space occupied by lie is encroached upon to a large degree by lay, so that one hears things like:

I'm going to lay down.
The girls like to lay out in the sun.

Part of the problem is surely that the past-tense forms add to the, um, confusion. The verb lay is transitive (to put something into a prone position), and like good transitive verbs in Germanic languages, it follows a regular ("weak") pattern for forming its constituent parts:

present: lay. I'm going to lay the book on the table.
past: laid. Yesterday I laid the book on the table.
participle: laid. All of us have laid books on the table.

(Compare, say, talk.) The verb lie, on the other hand, in the sense of being in a prone position, is intransitive and in the manner of some Germanic verbs, is thus irregular ("strong"):

present: lie. The book lies on the table.
past: lay. Yesterday, the book lay on the table.
participle: lain. The book has lain on the table all day.

(This last sounds odd even to me, so rarely does one hear this conversationally.) It's easy to see that a present-tense lay is easy to confuse with a past-tense lay, for example. And in the world of Germanic weak and strong verbs, if you're going to bet on which form will prevail, the weak form is your better bet by a long shot.

So. Blah-blah. Why am I telling you this? Because Michael B has found such a nice example where this gets really confuddled:

That's when Perkins missed for the second time in the game. He was wide left from 28 yards with 3:24 left in regulation, then missed wide right from 37 in the second overtime. Perkins lied on his back as Martin Stadium erupted at the possibility of a shocking upset.

(Hopefully they haven't fixed this by the time you read it.)

As I say, if you're going to bet on verbs, bet on weak verbs; given half a chance, people will whack a -d onto the end of anything that looks like a verb.

* I adamantly refuse to say that this is "wrong." But then, I would.

Monday, November 10, 2008

texts and selections

Seth forwards a link to a blog post that includes this cite:

This morning I got an email from a prospective [...] student who wanted to see my syllabus prior to registering. Because [the course] deals with literature of many genres, I use the word 'texts' in my syllabus (rather than the specific terms story, play, poem, essay). The student wrote back asking whether she would need to buy a new cell phone, seeing that we were reading so many texts. I assumed she was kidding and replied with a smiley face. Immediately, I received a furious tirade about how unfair I was to expect students to purchase phones and to pay for text messages, which are expensive. I replied that I hadn't realized she wasn't joking and defined what a 'text' means in English class. She wrote back that I had no right to use that word in a way that 'no one could possibly understand' and that she had already looked into buying phones which had worsened 'an already bad day' (guess she didn't vote for Obama?). I didn't have the heart (or stomach) to tell her that I'd switched to 'text' from my previous term 'selection' because former students had found 'selection' confusing (they thought it meant they only had to read part of an assignment--a selection of it. Usually, they just read the first page, especially if I neglected to include the entire page range of a selection on the syllabus).

I have to suspend disbelief a bit to buy this, but that's probably just because I don't deal much with the demographic in question. I can easily imagine that as a college student (I'm assuming), your first definition for text is what you create on a, you know, device. Where this goes wrong for me is that this anecdote suggests that the student in question does not have a second (or subsequent) definition for text that would make more sense in the context here (an English Lit class).

Is it possible that for this language community, the definition of text has become so strongly associated with texting that it has crowded out, so to speak, more traditional definitions?

The confusion over selection here isn't as problematic for me here, again assuming that we're talking about students who are young and/or new to a literature class. Couple this with the natural tendency of most students to want to do the least possible to fulfill an assignment, and with a bit of squinting, I can see this.

All this said, I have no suggestion as to what term here would be completely unambiguous to both teacher and students. What could one use here. Readings?

Anyway, for an amusing take on cross-generational vocabulary confusion that I can relate to, have a look at Matthew Baldwin's You Say Tomato post.