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Updated: 2014-10-04T23:42:17.409-07:00


Bated v. baited


If you mean you're waiting with great nervousness or trepidation for news, please write the word "bated." It's a cousin of the word "abated," which means "lessened. " So "bated breath" means that you have less breath; you're holding your breath with anxiety or tension.

In this context, if you write "baited breath," I'm going to assume you have a worm on your tongue. And wonder why.

Obviously, this word pair isn't a problem in speaking, since the two words are pronounced the same way, but in writing, getting it wrong can make you look not so smart.

Political correctness hits new heights of idiocy


In my last post, I didn't mention one of the British towns that the Local Government Association chastised for their substitution of the phrase "idea shower" for the word "brainstorm." The members of the town council had decreed the new phrase because they felt that people with epilepsy might be offended by the term "brainstorm." Strange to say, when members of the area Epilepsy Association finally were asked for their opinions, they stated that "brainstorm" didn't bother them at all.

It's good to be sensitive, but it's always best to go to the source if you don't know what to say. That's what happened years ago when we were unsure about the word "handicapped." When associations that served that population were asked what to do, they came up with what they called "people first" language, that is "people with a disability." Years and years ago, the first association that served those with cerebral palsy said that they perferred "affected by" rather than "afflicted with" cerebral palsy.

Yesterday on campus I heard a middle school student who was attending a camp there refer in all seriousness to a young man she was working with as "vertically challenged." He was shorter than she by far, but I noticed there was no word for her "condition." Is she "vertically superior?" "Vertically enhanced"? He's short. She's tall. That happens in middle school. Kids know it. They may be uncomfortable about it, but we don't have to wrap them in cotton and speak in code about a simple fact.

Could we just use common sense? Of course, we want to call people what they want to be called, but fashions wax and wane, and not everyone prefers the same term. If you don't know, ask the person what he or she would like. Does she prefer "African American" or "black"? Does he mind if you refer to him as a "diabetic" or would he rather you say, "My friend has diabetes"?

We have become so afraid of offending one another that we often avoid meaningful discourse altogether. As I read about George Carlin's death--the man who noticed that in his lifetime "toilet paper" had become "bathroom tissue" -- I thought about what a field day he would have with "idea shower." He certainly had a wonderful ability to skewer the whole PC parade, and I hope that in his memory, we might all become more linguistically honest.

A past tense confusion


Last week, I listened to the US ambassador to Zimbabwe discuss the deteriorating political scene in that country. He said that one of the embassy employees, a native of Zimbabwe, had been "drug from his car and beaten."

Of course, the most important aspect of this report was the description of lawlessness that has gripped the country. However, the ambassador needs to learn that the past tense of the word drag is dragged, not drug.

Drug is a noun meaning a medication or substance that affects the nervous system in various ways. It's never a verb. Although sometimes heard in colloquial speech, using drug this way can make you sound like a rube--and I'd expect more precise speech from one of our ambassadors. English is supposedly our national language, so our representatives should speak it well.

"Lay" and "lie." Why is this so hard?


I've resisted writing this post for a long time, but when I heard a colleague say that she had "lied in the sun," and she didn't mean she was outside telling an untruth, I figured it was time. This word pair is the one that is most often messed up, and myths abound about which is right and in what context.

I recently heard a radio call-in argument about the subject, and the host obviously had no idea which was correct. When a caller said that "things lay and people lie," the host said that was good enough for him and closed the discussion. How unfortunate that the caller was wrong. Things lie all the time. And people lay things. So let's start at the top.

Lay means "to put or place on a surface" and always requires an object--something put or placed. For example:
  • I'll lay these reports (object) on the credenza in your office.
  • When you've finished, lay your test booklets (object) in the box by the door.
If you use lay, you have to lay something. That's why, "I'm going to lay down for a while" is incorrect. There's nothing put or placed. However, "Now I lay me down to sleep" is correct because there's an object: me. However, in most cases we don't say, "I'm going to lay myself down," so lie is the correct word.

Lie means "to recline" or "to be positioned," and it doesn't take an object.
  • Sue has to lie down in a dark room when she has a migraine.
  • At this time of day, the sun lies just below the horizon.
When you want to talk about what happened in the past, the proper words are laid and lay.

  • I laid the sweater (object) on the chair a couple of hours ago.
  • Joe laid the report (object) on my credenza last week, but I can't find it.
  • Sue lay down until her headache went away.
  • The reports lay on the credenza for a month before anyone got around to reading them.

And the past participle (don't worry about the name; this isn't a grammar test) of these two words are laid and lain.

  • I've laid the reports (object) on your credenza.
  • I'd lain down for only a couple of minutes when the phone rang.

The present participle forms (the -ing form) are laying and lying.

  • I'm laying tile (object) this morning.
  • Don't call after noon. I'll be lying down. Tile work is exhausting.

The same rules apply to set/sit and raise/rise. Set and raise always require an object. Sit and rise never have an object. For some reason, people don't have quite as much difficulty with these two as they do with lay/lie, although in my neck of the woods, I often hear, "Set down and make yourself comfortable." Here's how to use these word pairs.

  • Please set the plant (object) in the corner.
  • Please sit down.
  • We'll raise the flag (object) at dawn.
  • Please rise for the national anthem.

Because these words are misused so often, saying and writing them correctly may feel odd at first. Persevere. It's OK to be right.

The reign in Spain


There's an interesting car commercial running now. It states that "Joan of Arc reigned only five years." Really? I was unaware she ever reigned. As a matter of fact, Joan's fondest desire was to put someone else on the throne. There's no doubt that Joan had a significant influence on the course of history, but she wasn't a sovereign, and she didn't reign.

Recently, I saw a similar use of this verb in the context of a college president's "reign" over the campus. I know academic regalia is cool, but it generally doesn't confer royal power. That's why college presidents are installed during an inauguration rather than a coronation.

English is a language of subtleties, and, to me, "reign" as a verb has the connotation of kingly (or queenly) rule.

As an adjective, though, "reigning" often has the opposite connotation, meaning commonplace or popular, as in the "reigning" opinion or fashion of a particular time.

One more thing to remember is the spelling of reign v. rein. A "rein" is part of a bridle, used to hold something in check. However, I can't tell you how many times in the past few weeks I've seen the phrase "to reign him/her/it in." The right word in that context is "rein" because it means to exercise control over something or someone.

And don't forget to take your umbrella when it reigns.