September 10th, 2003
Lay and lie / rest bit?
by Barbara Wallraff
The Reverend Canon Daniel S. Weir, of East Aurora, New York, writes, “Increasingly I hear ‘lay’ when ‘lie’ is called for. I’ve even heard it on NPR. Not long ago when I asked a student to read a passage that included ‘lying,’ he read it as ‘laying.’ Is this usage becoming so widespread that it is pointless to resist?”
“Everybody does it” is just a weasely excuse in many arenas of life. In language, though, it’s a legitimate defense—but not everybody does misuse “lay” for “lie.” The people who can keep these two verbs straight tend to be well-spoken, and they notice it when other people mix the pair up. You’re a case in point.
Mara Filo, of Beverly Hills, Mich., writes, “A teenage acquaintance recently told me in an e-mail that she enjoyed the respite from schoolwork that summer vacation offered. But in all innocence she wrote that vacation was a nice ‘rest bit.’ When you think about it, it’s a better way to spell the concept. Are there other misspellings that actually clarify the meaning of a term? And when words are creatively misspelled, does the ‘improved’ version ever take over?”
Yes and yes—changes in standard English often begin as misunderstandings of one kind or another. Just now the misspelling “miniscule” is gaining on the traditional spelling “minuscule.” We’re all so used to miniatures and minimums and mini-skirts that “minuscule” may look strange. It is spelled that way because it entered English from Latin by a different route than “mini-” words. But dictionaries have started to include “miniscule,” and some call it a mere variant rather than “nonstandard” or a mistake. “Minuscule” is still preferred, and more common—but check back with me in 20 years and let’s see if that has changed.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.