February 28, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: lay/lie, comma in list

Posted in comma before and, comma in list, commas, lay/lie at 8:32 pm by dlseltzer

Before we move to today’s tips, I’d like to take a moment to ask a favor (trust me; it’s for your own good). PEOPLE: Put your thesauruses (or thesauri, if you will) AWAY. Far, far away. The key to good writing is clarity and simplicity. Take, for instance, a couple of sentences from a proposal I read this week, improbably titled “An Ethnographic Study of Health Disparities Researchers and their Human Subjects in the Production of Scientific Knowledge of At-Risk Marginal Populations.” Fortunately, the proposal was by someone at another institution so I can include a small sample of sentences here.

“This can be demonstrated through a logic exercise of one of STS’s common maxims: that the authority of science is derived from the elision of the contingencies that go into its production. If the later [sic] is the case, then the former is by definition true.”

“Contemporary risk and neoliberal governmental and bureaucratic practices have served to turn experiences and conditions that should be a crisis to the political and social body into disingenuous reflections of the personal failures of individual and atomized citizens. ”

(Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up.) Using obscure or incomprehensible language does not make you sound smarter; it makes you sound like you have a thesaurus by your side.So let’s say it one more time. All together now, “The key to good writing is clarity and simplicity.”

On the other hand, this week I saw an elegant and eloquent sentence by New York Times reporter, Douglas Martin, on the death of William Buckley Jr. It helps if you know Buckley’s penchant for multisyllabic words.

“William F. Buckley Jr., who marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of
American political discourse, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn.”


Okay, on to the tips.

Tip 1: Lay vs. lie

At first blush, this looks pretty simple (even though they are often misused): “Lay” requires a direct object (a thing). “I will lay the coat on the bed.” “The coat” is the direct object.

“Lie” has to do with reclining (in this context). “I’m tired and am going to lie down.” “Lie” never takes a direct object.

You should never ever use “lay” to mean “lie.” NEVER say, “I am going home to lay down for a while” or “Why don’t you lay down before dinner.” And vice versa, you don’t want to say, “I’ll just lie my purse on the table.”

So “lay” requires a direct object, and “lie” cannot take a direct object. Fairly straightforward.

It gets trickier, however, when you look at other tenses of the word. The past tense of “lay” is “laid,” and very unfortunately, the past tense of “lie” is “lay.”The rules about the direct object still apply. “I don’t know where it is; yesterday, I laid the earrings on the table.” “In his grief, he lay on the ground.”

So when Dylan sang, “Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed,” it really should have been, “Lie, lady, lie. Lie upon my big brass bed.”

But it wouldn’t have sounded as good.

Tip 2: Comma before “and” in a list

Someone asked me whether you should put a comma before the “and” when using a list of words.

VACS is an ongoing, multi-site prospective observational study … conducted at 8 VAMCs in Atlanta, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Manhattan, Bronx, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Washington DC.


VACS is an ongoing, multi-site prospective observational study … conducted at 8 VAMCs in Atlanta, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Manhattan, Bronx, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Washington DC.

The answer is: it’s up to you, either is correct. My default is to use the comma before the “and.”

BUT, whichever way you chose, you should do it consistently in your document. It makes me a little crazy when it is used both ways–even in the same paragraph!



  1. brian said,

    I agree about the comma before the final “and”.

    It seems more appropriate to me because that is how we speak. When we say “A study in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Pittsburgh” we pause before saying the “and”.

    Just my 2c

  2. h davidson said,

    However=but does not belong at beginning of a sentence. Strunk and White

    • dlseltzer said,

      I’m not a strict prescriptionist and don’t agree with everything Strunk and White say. But you are certainly entitled to your opinion.

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