“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.