Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Lays of the Land

Laying out the Presidential Plan, wherein lies a recycled blog

“Well, our bill has been laying on the table for months. If the other side has ideas, the American people deserve to hear them.” In such feisty terms did a leading Democratic politician describe the state of play of the alleged “health care debate”. I voted for President Obama. As an English professor my hopes for the new administration were more eccentric, but also more realistic, than those of many of my fellow electors. I was not taken in for a moment by the promise of change I could believe in; what I did hope for was presidential grammar that I could tolerate.

There has been, happily, marked improvement. How could there not have been? One might wish that at some point during his elite education the president had learned that the first-person pronoun “I” (among his favorite words, after all) is a nominative form, and that he really ought not to use it as the object of transitive verbs or in such prepositional phrases as “for Michelle and I”. But this is a venial sin, and compared with his predecessor, who appears to have assigned the theory of the complete sentence to the same category of dubious hypothesis as that in which global warming might be found, Mr. Obama is a dignified speaker.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his “spokespersons,” as they are now called. Mr. Gibbs is particularly inarticulate; but I entertain the dark suspicion that there is not a person in the White House who can distinguish between the verbs lay and lie. How well I remember the witticism of Mrs. White, my ninth-grade English teacher. The bill is laying on the table, indeed! Whenever one of us uttered a Gibbsism she shot back: “Hens lay. Politicians lie.

It’s a lost cause, but now and again I still fight back. Some time ago, under doctor’s orders, I underwent a “stress test” at an “imaging center”. The purpose of the test, apparently, is to gauge the functioning of the coronary arteries at a time when the exercised heart is beating rapidly. That part of the test, involving a simulated trot up a 14-degree slope on a treadmill, presented little difficulty. The real “stress” was elsewhere. First of all a nurse sticks a horse-needle into the crook of your arm. I am used to nurses who have difficulty finding the right vein. This one was challenged to find the right arm; but he eventually achieved the desired conduit for injecting what the doctor himself, who now arrived on the scene preemptively annoyed, called “the radioactive stuff”.

“This may feel a little cold in your arm, but it has no side-effects and no after-effects. Lay down on the table,” (pointing) “legs that way”. Perhaps if Dr. Goodscalpel had said the magic word “Please” my professorial resistance would not have been engaged; but he didn’t. Lie,” I said. “Please lie on the table.” He took on an expression in which grumpiness contested the field with dull incomprehension. Lay is a transitive verb,” I explained. “You pick something up, and you lay it down. Chickens lay eggs. ‘Lay down your arms, and come out with your hands up.’ That sort of thing. Lie is intransitive. ‘Amaryllis lies upon her fragrant bed of myrtle.’” That is a pretty far-out line under the best of circumstances, but if the only Myrtle known to you is your wife’s cousin it apparently becomes kinky as well. But all he said was “Lie, lay—what’s the difference?”

I had of course, just explained the difference; and society should be concerned that a man who finds it inconsequential is licensed to pump me full of “radioactive stuff,” let alone reorganize all of American health care. Distinctions in the lay/lie word families are not insignificant, as I then tried to demonstrate by pulling out my one famous author story.

W. H. Auden, circa 1959

One evening in 1959 the great poet W. H. Auden was in my rooms at Oxford. He was slightly drunk, and indeed spilled most of a bottle of port over four volumes of my Cambridge History of English Literature. (Purple stains of such provenance somewhat removed the opprobrium of the words “Cheap Edition” that were actually gold-stamped on the books’ backs.) Mr. Auden also autographed my own cheap Penguin edition of his collected poems and made a few corrections in the printed text, leaving me with a “rarity” that only increases in value as his fame grows. These very poems, he told me, had very recently been translated into French. “How do you like the translation?” I asked. “For the most part it is exshellent,” he slurred. “I have found only one serious mistake…” He paused for effect. I effected. “Yesh…I had used the perfectly fine old American expression a good lay…”

“And…” I asked.

“And it is rendered as un grand poème!”

“What’s your point?” asked Goodscalpel.


  1. Looked at from a less glib angle one could say that the bill has indeed been laying on the table for months so that it can, if passed, screw the Democrats just before it screws the public. You might say that one often gets a very bad lay out of a pack of lies.

  2. Dear Professor,

    First of all, I have been enjoying your weekly posts very much, and I hope you will believe me when I say that only an unusual concatenation of emergencies at work and at home has prevented me from leaving you appropriately considered comments.

    I have left a friendly comment at the relevant post on the reason that a high school education meant so much more in 1910 than it means in 2010. I say that because I am about to offer you to consider what might be an "area of opportunity" for you in your political thinking.

    When you write -- " I was not taken in for a moment by the promise of change I could believe in; what I did hope for was presidential grammar that I could tolerate." -- are you not offering yourself up as the beau ideal of an effete snob?

    Of what matter is the fact that the Yale- and Harvard-educated George W. Bush (whose undergraduate GPA was better than that supposed Brahmin intellectual John Francois Kerry's) chose to communicate with the American people in the patois of Midland, Texas, rather than in the jargon of a failed academician? And are the President's mannered readings of his teleprompter pages, and the disdainful condescension of his sophomoric mannerisms, really preferable to Senator McCain's more direct speech? (That was the choice, by the way, in case you didn't notice -- President Bush was in fact not running for re-election.)

    Is the evident fecklessness of the abandoned boy who grew up to be a marxisant political bully really worth it?

  3. Dear Punditarian,

    I appreciate your comment as well as the courteous manner in which it is expressed. The focus of my blog is not political. I describe my subject matter as "of general interest". Still, I do sometimes touch upon politics and politicians. And as my own essays are often highly opinionated, and their mode of expression sometimes extravagant, I must expect them from time to time to annoy or offend other people with other strong opinions.

    In general I try to follow the wise advice of Henry James concerning adverse criticism of one's writing. "Never apologize. Never explain." Just now, however, I shall allow myself two supplementary remarks at least semi-explanatory in nature. The first is that (in my opinion) clarity of thought and seriousness of ideas seldom exist apart from the power to express them lucidly and explain them cogently. It is for this reason that oratorical competence was so highly esteemed among the Greeks, the Romans, and the founders of the American republic. It is still prized at Westminster in the "Mother of Parliaments." Next--and here I express a personal opinion of a proud graduate of the Class of 1954 at Mount Pleasant (Texas) High School--George Bush's "patois of Midland, Texas" was as store-boughten as his hat and his boots. I can attest on the basis of personal experience that even in darkest Sulphur Springs there were people who spoke in complete sentences.

  4. Dear Professor,

    Thank you for your generous and kind response to my comment. If I am courteous, it is only in imitation of the manner in which you conduct your weblog. Certainly I agree that oratorical ability has long been associated with leadership. I wonder, however, whether that has been true in every case, and if oratorical ability should be a major criterion in the selection of our President. (I also understand that "clarity of thought and seriousness of ideas" means more than oratorical ability.)

    Calibrating the relative merits and faults of George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama would waste time for both of us here. Let me say though that when I wrote that President Bush had chosen to communicate the way he did, and when you wrote that his patois was store-bought, we were expressing a similar if not exactly the same observation: that his manner of speech was a deliberate choice. His style of expression evidently did not appeal to academe, but it did appeal to many millions of voters. His re-election in the face of withering attacks from the opposition party, academy, and virtually all of the newspapers and television networks tends to make me think that his choice of rhetorical style was not necessarily a mistake.

    The American electorate prefers an Andrew Jackson to a Quincy Adams, an Eisenhower to a Stevenson, and a George Bush to a Jean-Francois Kerry. I find it hard to fault them for that.

  5. Dear Professor,

    I may be a bit late in responding, but then again I'm a bit late in the reading. As far as Auden's complaint, I find no fault - and I'm making reference to an anterior blog of yours regarding Horace's remark on the cause of the Trojan war - for many a "great lay" has been the subject of many a "grand poeme."(I do not know French; I hope I'm not too far from the surface meaning I interpreted.)

    That said, I'm quite sure the misusage of lay/lie lies in wait for me to lay out in any extemporaneous lay or lie I might use. I perhaps should venture no further, though the farther along I write it seems hopeless.

    The only solution (or perhaps dissolution) to the problem I see lies in time-machine technology, or a degree of prescience on the part of those about to hear what lay in wait for them in hindsight to the present. In reference to your example, then, you would have anticipated your doctor by having already been lying on the table, thus saving him from saying anything improper; doctor/patient confidentiality not withstanding.

    If I may dust of some undergraduate philosophy: in the Parmenidean sense, the transitive use of an intransitive verb is in reality intransitive, or I am I thinking of the Hericlitean use of an intransitive verb transitivley which is transitive nonetheless.
    I think I'll redust the book on that one.

    Back down to earth, I find the distinction between the two verbs ever more pertinent to contemporary society. As any young male would testify when saying he has lain with a certain young lady, what he wishes to convey is that he laid first, lain second.

    p.s. Thank you for your blog. Through you I have begun reading Chaucer with earnest and game.