Be appalled; be very appalled

« previous post | next post »

It is traditional for readers of The Daily Telegraph to write letters to their editor saying how "appalled" they are by the terrible abuse the English language suffers daily. One little neologism, one split infinitive or other such stupid shibboleth that's easy to spot, and they're on it like wolves, excoriating the usage and protesting that the syntactic sky is falling. Well, earlier browsers of the photo gallery that the Telegraph has put up on its website concerning the riots and looting in Tottenham (north London) over the weekend will be shocked not only by the scenes of masked looters, buildings ablaze, police cars torched, and a double-decker bus going up like a roman candle, but also by the caption under a photo of a trashed and gutted ATM lying on its side round the corner from a bank:

A looted cash machine lays down an alley

(Added a day later: I've been surprised that the Telegraph hasn't yet changed the caption. When CNN wrote that clues to the earth's future may lay in the past, they changed it soon after Language Log commented on it. The Daily Telegraph's people clearly don't read Language Log.)

Just to remind those of you who have not memorized my disastrously confusing guidance of a few years ago: lay = {lay, lays, laid, laying, laid} is the transitive verb meaning "deposit, or cause to recline"; lie1 = {lie, lies, lay, lying, lain} is the intransitive verb meaning "recline"; and lie2 = {lie, lies, lied, lying, lied} is an additional confound, an unrelated intransitive verb meaning "tell a deliberate untruth under conditions where truth was expected". Confusing these paradigms is just the sort of thing to make the Telegraph reader get out his fountain pen and cream notepaper. (The Telegraph gets a lot of letters. There are two very entertaining published anthologies of letters not selected for publication in the Telegraph, the first under the title Am I Alone In Thinking…?.)

The Telegraph's caption writer (who will clearly be clearing out his or her desk by Friday, for I fear this head will roll) has clearly chosen the wrong lexeme. You may lay down your arms, or your burden, or some guidelines, or the law, but you don't lay down an alley unless you are a road-building contractor. Dear Sir: Am I alone in thinking that many of your readers will find this appalling?

I'm actually never surprised at errors of this type. In my view, given the almost malignly confusing overlap between the paradigms of the three lexemes, it is astonishing that so many of us often get the forms right. Take a look at the forms of all three verbs side by side:

  lie
"fib"
(intransitive)
lie
"recline"
(intransitive)
lay
"deposit"
(transitive)
plain form / plain present tense lie lie lay
 3rd person singular present tense lies lies lays
preterite (simple past) tense lied lay laid
gerund-participle lying lying laying
past participle lied lain laid

Does that look like a logical and orderly language designed for convenience of learning and use by an intelligent people? No. English morphology is a disgrace. We users do our best with the mess that has resulted from its slow evolution through more than a thousand years of history in the British Isles and elsewhere, but sometimes as I look at the chaos of what we are expected to regard as correct, I'm… appalled.

Comments are closed; but we will be publishing a book of comments not accepted on Language Log.

Share:



Comments are closed.