Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Further proof that "lay/laid" is a lost cause

How hard is it to keep lie, lay, laid, lain in their proper places? Let's ask Philip Corbett, the New York Times's standards editor. In yesterday's After Deadline blog, he listed this among the paper's usage missteps:
Mr. Zimmerman talked to police repeatedly and willingly, making statements that lay the groundwork for his self-defense case.
We use the article: “the police.”
It didn't take long for readers to point out the mistake Corbett had missed. "You should also use 'laid,' not the intransitive 'lay,'" said one: Zimmerman's statements laid the groundwork.

Lay, of course, can be transitive too -- in the present tense: "Lay the coats on that bed." But the Zimmerman sentence is cast in the past ("He talked to police"), so the usual sequence of tenses would call for the past-tense laid. "I know you are right" becomes, in the past, "I knew you were right" -- even if you still are right.

But not always. The writer might claim he meant to use the present tense of transitive lay, since  even though Zimmerman talked to police in the past, his statements are laying the groundwork for a defense. Brian Garner calls this the "ongoing-truth exception" to the standard tense shift: "When a subordinate clause states an ongoing or general truth, it should be in the present tense" whatever the main verb is. Thus "He said yesterday that he is Jewish, not ... that he was Jewish."

Garner seems to want to make this a rigid rule, so that every continuing truth would be stated in the present tense. That has not been the traditional practice, though. "The tense shift can always be disregarded when one wants to make a subordinate clause conspicuous," wrote Bergen and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957):  "He told me the train leaves at three," for example, or "he taught that God is love." But usually, they caution, "the shift has nothing to do with 'real time.'" In most cases, we shift tenses naturally: "What did you say your name was?"

As far as I know, nobody before Garner suggested drawing a bright line between cases where the "ongoing-truth exception" was mandatory and those where it wasn't. Following it rigidly would create some odd sentences: "I knew you are right." "Mom thought my dress is too short." And often either version serves equally well: "She said he still believed/believes in Santa Claus." We've gotten along for centuries leaving the choice to the writer; why would we clutter up our heads with a rule now?


Gregory Lee said...

"Subordinate clauses" in the statement of when we get sequence of tenses is too broad, since complement sentences (those that are a part of a superordinate clause, such as its direct object) are generally required to observe sequence of tenses, while relative clauses are not. The tense of a relative clause is understood relative to the person who takes responsibility for the appropriateness of the description given by the clause.

For instance, in "John insisted that the pies he ate which were made of meat contributed to his robust health," the description "which were made of meat" could potentially be the responsibility of either John himself, the person reporting what John said, or I, the speaker of the sentence. However, the last is an unlikely interpretation, since the past "were" is presumably due to the sequence of tenses rule, and is to be understood as holding at the past time of "insisted" or the past time of "ate".

The case of descriptions which are timelessly true is a special case of the general rule, since timeless descriptions can equally well be attributed to any in the chain of individuals involved in a report.

Jean said...

I was worried when I saw the title -- were you going to give up on the distinction between "lie" and "lay"? I should have know better. This was most interesting.
In an English class in Asbury Park High School in 1948 or '49, the teacher repeated that wonderful old misstatement that "lie" was for animate objects, "lay" for inanimate.
I put my hand up, insufferable child that I was, and said, "Do you mean that you would say, 'The baby is lieing on the bed and the book is laying beside it'? She looked a bit anxious, but agreed that that was correct.