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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.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that after “kind of” and “sort of,” people often make roughly the opposite mistake, throwing in an unnecessary “a.” That is, they might say “What kind of a coach is he?” when better usage would be “What kind of coach is he?”

I wonder whether people who make these mistakes are trying to split the difference between the correct two forms (using just “a” after an adjective and using just “of” after a noun). If so, the unfortunate result is that they’re getting them both wrong.

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.

It’s obvious that if you’re going to impress this information on your classes, you’ll need to be more definite about it. My suggestion would be to wait until you’ve built up some good will with a particular class and then explain it as an idiosyncrasy of yours that hearing “lay down” bothers you; could they please indulge you and sing “lie down” instead? Of course, you’re doing them a favor by encouraging them to use correct English. But for some reason, people tend to be more cooperative when they think they’re the ones doing the favor.

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

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