Category Archives: Tips

The toughest verb choice I know: lie and lay.

Knowing when to use the various forms of the verbs lie and lay is the hardest writing and editing trick for me. In fact, here’s something I recently posted on Facebook: “Benefit of freelancing: I feel crummy, so I can break my own rule and lay on the couch Facebooking in the middle of the day.” A few hours later when I reread it, I had to add this corrective comment: “Ah! Lie on the couch! Bad editor, bad!” So this post is as much for my own future reference as it is for any of you! And it’s not just me: just yesterday I saw a query about which to use in a LinkedIn group for professional editors, and even Grammar Girl admits to having to look them up every time. All right (or is it alright? topic for another day…), time to quit stalling and get to it.

I try to keep my tips simple and free of technical jargon, but this time I’ll need just a bit. The difference between lie and lay is whether they require a direct object. A direct object is the entity being acted upon. Put another way, a direct object is what the subject of the sentence is verbing. In the sentence, “Jason hung the coat on the rack,” Jason is the subject, hung is the verb, and the coat is the direct object. In the sentence, “Marla gave the box to him,” Marla is the subject, gave is the verb, and the box is the direct object. Keep in mind that not every sentence has a direct object.

Now that we have that out of the way, it’s time for the big reveal. Use the various forms of the verb lie when there is NO direct object and use the various forms of the verb lay when there IS a direct object. Accordingly, lie means recline (i.e., the subject is reclining, so no direct object is needed) while lay means to put (i.e., put something–the direct object). Here’s a chart to help keep the forms straight:

Meaning

Direct Object?

Root Verb

-ing Form

Past Tense

Past Participle

Recline No Lie Lying Lay Lain
Put Yes Lay Laying Laid Laid

Examples with lie:

  • Joe likes to lie on the couch all day.
  • Joe was lying on the couch when I came over.
  • Joe lay on the couch all day yesterday.
  • Joe has lain on the couch for weeks.

Examples with lay (with the direct object italicized):

  • Joe will lay his book on the couch when he is done reading it.
  • Joe will be laying his book on the couch when he is done reading it.
  • Joe laid his book on the couch when he was done reading it.
  • Joe has laid his book on the couch every evening.

Of course, there are many more definitions of both words than just recline and put (Merriam-Webster has 17 for lie and 32 for lay), but hopefully this clears up the most common mistakes with these two confusing verbs.

She was ingenious, but ingenuous.

“She was ingenious, but ingenuous.” What now? Look closely and you’ll notice I haven’t gone completely crazy and those are different words.

Before delving into their definitions, let’s check out their use. Below is a figure I made from the Google books Ngram Viewer:

ingenious-ingenuous ngramFirst, we can see that ingenious is more frequent than ingenuous for the entire period of 1800-2008. Ingenious has been in steady decline and is now only 10% as common as it used to be. Ingenuous was slightly more popular in the early 1800s, but is now used approximately never. So you’re forgiven for not knowing both these relatively rare words off the top of your head!

Ingenious (in-JEEN-ee-us) has positive connotations today. It can be used to describe a person as clever and original (“an ingenious inventor”) or a something as cleverly designed (“an ingenious invention”). It’s similar to the word genius.

Ingenuous (in-JEN-you-us) , on the other hand, has negative connotations today. It means unsuspecting and naïve (“an ingenuous child”). You can remember this by thinking about the word ingenue, which today usually refers to a theatrical role for a wholesome young woman. Be careful because disingenuous is not simply an antonym of ingenuous; it means someone is deceitfully pretending to be ingenuous.

So while it would be great to cultivate a reputation as an ingenious scientist who develops ingenious theories, you probably don’t want to be known as ingenuously falling for everyone else’s fad theories.

(Today’s tip inspired by this post from The Publishing Training Centre.)

Should you use questions on your posters?

Zen Faulkes (I wasn’t kidding when I said you should be following him) says no. In his post “Detective stories: ‘Whodunnit?’ versus ‘How’s he gonna prove it?’,” Faulkes argues that scientists’ curiosity leads us to overdo it on the questions.

Academic posters are meant to be understood in a flash. I’ve even heard the advice that people should be able to take in the gist of your project while walking by slowly without stopping. The best way to aid this rapid digestion is to “tell them the bottom line right away.”

I still think questions have their place in scientific communication. But if this blog post was the title of or a heading on an academic poster, I would format it: “You should not use questions on your posters” and include my supporting evidence to build that case.

Her affect was affecting her ability to effect the best effect.

“Her affect was affecting her ability to effect the best effect.” Now there’s a tricky sentence for anyone struggling with the differences between affect and effect! Let’s unpack it.

The first option, of course, would be to rephrase the whole thing to avoid having to use either affect or effect: “Her mood was influencing her ability to bring about the best result.” Sure, you can get away with that sometimes (and in this case changing a few of the a/effects would be welcome!), but sometimes a/effect really is the best word for the job. And in those instances, you’ll need to know which to use.

  • Most of the time, affect is a verb meaning something like to influence.
  • Most of the time, effect is a noun meaning something like a result.

My easy way to remember these is to think “thE Effect.” Most of the time, when you can put “the” in front of it, you should be using the noun effect and when you can’t put “the” in front of it, you should be using the verb affect.

But most of the time won’t get you the right answer every time. There are rarer meanings of affect and effect that switch the verb and noun roles!

  • Rarely (unless you’re in psychology or related fields like Affective Neuroscience), affect is a noun relating to mood or emotion.
  • Rarely, effect is a verb meaning something like bring about (and it’s usually accompanied by “change”).

So the bottom line is you can use the “thE Effect” trick to get the right a/effect most of the time. (If that particular mnemonic doesn’t work for you, check out Grammar Girl’s here.) And, unless you’re a psychologist who should know better, if you accidentally slip up on one of the rare cases, I won’t even be upset.

Grammar: Where everything’s made up, but the rules DO matter!

Everyone’s pumped for the return of the American version of the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? on CW. But in all the excitement, I’ve repeatedly seen a word choice error that makes my hair stand on end: too many people are apparently looking forward to watching a mysterious show called Who’s Line is it Anyway? instead.

I think the trouble stems from over learning the rule about apostrophes being used to denote possession. In this case, the apostrophe in who’s is only to indicate a contraction (of who is or who has). When you’re talking about something belonging to someone or something, you’ll instead want whose. Here are some examples.

Who’s coming to dinner? Jim, whose cooking is amazing, is waiting for us.

Whose team will win? Dana, who’s cheering for the Packers, is optimistic.

Unlike on Whose Line (“Where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter”), the rules of grammar do matter. If you don’t want to look like a writer whose grasp of English is subpar, or someone who’s still in middle school, you’d better learn the difference between whose and who’s.

I update the blog every day. Or is it everyday?

As you may have seen in my earlier post about my regular weekday schedule, my goal is to update this blog every day. Or is it everyday? Today’s tip is about keeping the two straight. I thought I had a novel mnemonic, but it turns out all the resources I checked promote the same trick. Oh well–at least that’s verification it works!

It’s as simple as this: if you can replace the phrase with “each day,” then you should use “every day.” As in, “I update the blog each day.” That checks out.

If substituting in “each day” doesn’t make sense, then you should instead use “everyday.” You wouldn’t say, for example, “Stacy’s each day look is drab,” so you should write, “Stacy’s everyday look is drab.”

For a good technical explanation, check out this entry from Grammarist.