April 1st, 2009
Adjective plus of / lie and lay
by Barbara Wallraff
A. Stedman Murdy, of Norwell, Mass., writes: “In a recent New York Times, ‘How good of a coach is he?’ appeared in an article I read. Why do writers add the totally unneeded ‘of’ to such sentences? Another recent example is ‘too big of a risk.’”
Dear Stedman: I can’t find any discussion in reference books about why people say and write this, but you’re right that they do and that the grammar is suspect at best. “How good a coach” and “too big a risk” are better English. “Good” and “big” are adjectives modifying “coach” and “risk,” and no preposition is needed.
Melinda Lise Pokorzynski, of Bear Lake, Mich., writes: “I teach Kindermusik to families. The parents are mostly well educated, and many of them are teachers. Every time a particular song/activity comes up, I cringe. ‘Walk along, walk along, walk along, Rover. Sit down, lie down, roll over’ is how the song goes. Kids love it! I sing at the top of my lungs, ‘... lie down ...,’ and the song is recorded correctly. But immediately after I sing ‘lie down,’ 99 percent of the parents say ‘lay down.’ Year after year, class after class, ‘lay down’ is all I hear. Even when I make a light joke -- ‘You know, parents, chickens lay eggs, people lie down, dogs lie down’ -- no one changes. I am out there all by myself trying to save the English language. I am no expert, mind you, but this drives me nuts. Any advice?”
Dear Melinda: It does feel like a lonely battle sometimes, doesn’t it? I admire you for not giving up. The way I’d describe the difference between “lie” and “lay” is this: “Lay” is “transitive,” involving an object -- one lays something (for instance, the chicken lays the egg) or lays something down (such as a book on the table). “Lie” is “intransitive” -- sleeping dogs lie, and a person lies down, period.
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