2017.09.13 Old: Make me transitive again

There are words from Jim Whitehouse on the adjacent page and words about his father below. The influence from that family lives on in Morenci. The column below is from 20 years ago.


I will not lay on the dining room table. I will not lay on the dining room table. I will not lay on the dining room table, etc., a hundred times over, until I finally get it right.

And what is right? I will not lie on the dining room table? I have to get it right for myself and my journalistic self-respect, but I also have to get it right for Dr. Keith Whitehouse who occasionally points out the errors of my laying words onto the page.

I’m talking about the lead story on the front page of last week’s paper: “It’s laying covered in attics.”

It referred to all the valuable junk from the past that people are going to donate to Bruce Cottrell’s attic. The Cottrell attic was offered as a temporary storage area until a historical museum becomes a reality.

My wife read that sentence (after the paper was printed) and said I should expect a call from Keith. It never came.

As most of you surely learned in school, this is a matter of transitive and intransitive verbs, whatever they are. It’s true, I have no idea what these things are. Somehow I scored decent grades in English, was graduated from high school and college, and chose the unlikely profession of newspaperology without knowing something as basic as the intransitive use of verbs.

Let me pull out my grandmother’s old grammar book (copyright 1877). The text was written by William Dwight Whitney, a professor of Sanskrit at Yale College. Sanskrit? Hold on, he was also a professor of modern languages.

Prof. Whitney writes that transitive verbs “do not take, or are hardly able to take, any object.” They express themselves completely without an added object. For example: I write, I weep.

Transitive means “going over” and these verbs “pass over” from the subject to an object. Picture a chicken saying, “I lay.”

The intransitive verb needs an object. You can’t merely say “I lie,” unless you’re lying. You must say “I lie down.”

If this is clear, you now know that you can’t say “Junk lays in the attic.” No, no. Junk lies in the attic.

I’m a dense head. I still don’t get it. Not at all. I failed W. D. Whitney. I lie in the attic shamed.

That doesn’t sound right to me. It sounds right to say that I lay at the feet of W. D. Whitney, ashamed in his attic. I admit I don’t know the rules. I’m lucky enough to be able to write most of the time strictly by the way it sounds, but there are breakdowns.

It didn’t always work for the professor, either. Here’s his footnote to the transitive/intransitive issue: “But this distinction is by no means an absolute one; many verbs are freely used in both these ways, and there is hardly a transitive verb in our language that may not also be used intransitively.”

I was certain that my Strunk and White would help. Mr. Strunk and Mr. White wrote a book called “Elements of Style.” It’s a classic that covers everything. Page 51 has a quick, simple explanation: Lay is a transitive verb. Do not misuse it for the intransitive verb lie. The hen, or the play, lays an egg; the llama lies down. The playwright went home and lay down.

That’s it from Strunk and White. If you don’t understand this, I think they’re saying that you shouldn’t be reading this book in the first place.

Let me try the dictionary. Lay means to place something in a position. I lay the junk in the attic. Following the conjugation listed, the junk has laid there for years and it’s laying there still. Now wait a minute, that’s what I said originally. This is getting more confusing.

The dictionary also tells me that lie means to occupy a place. The junk lies in the attic. It has lain there for years. It is lying there still. It will remain there until the semi-annual trash collection in November when I will have, once again, completely forgotten the rules.