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May 7th, 2008

Had drank? / lie and lay

by Barbara Wallraff

David L. Bird, of Dayton, Ohio, writes: “I am reading a first novel by an author who had been an assistant state attorney. In one sentence, he wrote ‘had drank.’ It was not in dialogue. I almost tossed the book (that wasn’t the only gaffe), but I decided to check at m-w.com. To my horror, I found this:

Main Entry: drink
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): drank; drunk or drank; drink-ing

Is this usage pressure? What are we to do about this kind of abuse?”

Dear David: Your phrase “usage pressure” is just right. And I’m impressed that you understood what the dictionary means by “inflected forms” -- obscure terminology these days. The second inflected verb form or forms a dictionary gives (if it does) are the perfect tense, for use after “have” or “had.”

Unfortunately, today’s dictionaries -- including dictionary Web sites like Merriam-Webster’s m-w.com -- aren’t always reliable guides to correct usage. Merriam-Webster’s in particular is more in the business of describing the way ordinary people use words than the way authorities think people should. If you ask the dictionary makers about that, they’ll say it’s not their job to decide what’s correct -- they’re just reporting. Well, my goodness, if you compile dictionaries and you aren’t sure what’s correct, don’t take a poll -- go ask somebody who knows! But that’s not the modern way. If enough people say or write “had drank” instead of “had drunk,” dictionaries start including it as an alternative.

Different dictionaries are, however, more or less eager to be up-to-the-minute. Webster’s New World, which is influential because it’s the official dictionary of the Associated Press, gives “drank” as a perfect form of “drink” but calls it “informal.” The American Heritage Dictionary and the New Oxford American, which are the most conservative and scholarly of the bunch, give only “drunk” for the perfect tense.
One thing you can do, David, about “this kind of abuse” is to switch to a dictionary that’s more concerned about correct usage. That’s the most effective way I can think of for you and me to exert our own “usage pressure.” Actually buying a dictionary will give us the greatest leverage. But if you like to use online resources rather than printed ones, you’ll find the American Heritage on dictionary.com and bartleby.com.

Ellen Christie Kays, of Lansing, Mich., writes: “It seems that only a select few ever use the verb ‘lie’ anymore to mean ‘place oneself in a recumbent position.’ Sentences such as ‘I’m going to go lay down now’ sound awful. They hurt my ears! Is there anything to be done?”

Dear Ellen: You’ll be glad to know that all four dictionaries I mentioned to David distinguish between “lie” and “lay.” Of course, “lay” is both a verb in its own right (a transitive one, which needs an object: “I lay the newspaper on the breakfast table”) and the past tense of “lie” (“Yesterday I lay down for an hour”). That’s confusing. I suspect, too, that people shy away from words like “lie” and “drunk” because they sometimes have negative connotations (as in, “He was drunk” and “She lied”). Oh, well. Just keep saying “lie” when it’s correct.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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