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joan wickersham

Navigating the grammatical thicket

GREG KLEE/ GLOBE STAFF

IT WAS 9:30 at night. I was tired; my students were tired; we’d been writing and talking about writing for almost four hours; it was time to start wrapping up so we could all go home to bed. “One last thing,” I said. “Looking at the writing you did tonight, I noticed some confusion about when to use ‘me’ and when to use ‘I.’ ” Suddenly everybody in the room was awake. More than awake: they were excited. Help, they said, please, please explain. They were graduate students, but no one had ever taught them basic grammar.

Now we come to a fork in the op-ed writer’s road. This column could head off in the direction of deploring and lamenting the lack of grammar instruction in our schools and fearing that the English language is being corrupted, impoverished, and lost. For the record: Yes. I deplore, lament, and fear.

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But let’s take the other fork. Let’s go down the path of accepting that there are a lot of people around today who didn’t grow up diagramming sentences. Advising them to consider subjective vs. objective pronouns, or transitive vs. intransitive verbs, isn’t going to mean much. So here are some practical, intuitive ways to find your way out of a grammatical tight spot.

First, “me” and “I.” The mistakes happen when the “me” or “I” comes after an “and.” “The guitar player was looking at Carly and I.” To find the solution, get rid of “Carly” and “and.” What you’re left with — “The guitar player was looking at I” — shows you that something in the sentence is screwy. “The guitar player was looking at Carly and me” may be a fantasy — he probably was blinded by the lights and too stoned to see either of you — but at least it’s grammatically correct.

By the same intuitive reasoning, “Carly and me went backstage to his dressing room” is a mistake, both in terms of grammar and behavior.

Now, “lie” and “lay.” This is dangerous territory if we stay with the guitarist, who may do a lot of both. Let’s move away from him to a more innocent venue: Thanksgiving at your grandmother’s house, where you eat so much that after dinner all you want to do is to — lay down? Lie down? Here’s some help. Pay attention; this is a little complicated. The word you want is “lie.” But before you go lie down, you’ll need to lay down your fork. “To lie,” means “to recline”; “to lay” means “to place or put.”

That’s pretty straightforward, assuming that this is all happening right now. But suppose it happened yesterday? Suppose that yesterday you ate a lot, and then you got rid of your fork and then reclined? It would be correct to write, “Yesterday I laid down my fork and then I lay down.”

I or me? Lay or lie? Sooner or later we blunder into a dark and tangled part of the forest where intuition stops making sense. Sooner or later, we have to go back to the rules.

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So can we say that if you recline today it’s “lie,” and if you reclined yesterday it’s “lay”? Not exactly. Suppose you want to say that yesterday at your grandmother’s you ate a lot and then made a decision to go and recline? It happened in the past, and yet the correct way to say it is, “I decided to lie down.”

Why?

Because “lay” is the simple past tense of the verb “lie,” but in the sentence “I decided to lie down,” “to lie” is the infinitive form of the verb, which here functions as the object of the simple-past-tense verb “decided.” That’s why.

And now I find myself looking back longingly at the other path this column could have taken: the argument that we need to teach the rules of grammar to American schoolchildren. Intuitive reasoning will take us only so far where grammar is concerned. Sooner or later we blunder into a dark and tangled part of the forest where intuition stops making sense. Sooner or later, we have to go back to the rules: back to that other path in the woods, where things make sense because writers, scholars, and teachers have spent years clearing away the underbrush.

Grammar and usage may sound like boring things to care about, but we need to care, in order to be taken seriously when we speak and when we write. If you disagree, send a letter to the newspaper and I; if it upsets I, me will go lay down.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’
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