Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lie vs Lay vs #MileyCyrus

Andrea, from Los Angeles, wrote recently to ask if I had seen the letter (posted on multiple media sites) from “rock Indie heartthrob” Sufjan Stevens to Miley Cyrus. I thought I could guess the topic, but, no, he was not taking Miley to task for her famously outlandish twerking at the VMA Awards. Instead, it turned out to be perhaps the first charmingly suggestive fan letter ever disguised as a grammar lesson.

Stevens opened by pointing to Miley’s use of “lay” instead of “lie” in her current song, “#Get It Right.” A quick reading of the lyrics revealed worse defects than grammar (lack of subtlety, for one). But Stevens’s concern was this:

“I been laying in this bed all night long
Don’t you think it’s time to get it on”

“Miley,” Stevens said in the letter, “technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING; (laying is) an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e., ‘I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.’”

Stevens, a forgiving guy, says, “But don’t worry, even Faulkner messed it up.”
Now, I assume here that Stevens is referring to William Faulkner’s novel, “As I Lay Dying.” However, I think Stevens has this one wrong: Faulkner’s title suggests a past form verb tense, and since the past form of “lie” is “lay” then both the verb and tense are impeccable. Whatever.

Perhaps too much Miley on the brain got Stevens momentarily muddled, because he was soon grammatically back on track, pointing out that #Get It Right got the verb tense wrong: “Surely, you’ve heard of the Present Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long …)?” Here, Stevens is absolutely right, if a tad school-marmish given the context and nature of the song.

The present perfect continuous tense that Stevens cites is used when we want to convey an action started in the past that is still continuing. (“I’ve been waiting forever!”) What Stevens neglected to mention is that few Western languages have this tense – and English is unique among the Germanic languages it’s a part of to have it (thank you, 5th century Celts!)

Oddly, Stevens stays away from this wonderful bit of arcane linguistic history when describing the present perfect continuous. Instead, he uses the tense as a jumping-off point for combining verb tense knowledge, as well as what emerges as his own Miley-mania, all in one:

“It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks.” (Go, Sufjan! You’re clearly taking this tense seriously.)

Then he gets personal: “But I have a feeling your ‘present perfect continuous’ involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense?”

Honestly, if grammar were made this exciting in school, perhaps teachers might consider teaching it (first, most teachers would have to learn it, since English grammar stopped being taught in American public schools in the 1970s). But a Sufjan Stevens grammar class could clearly be a high school favorite.

As Stevens brings his note to a heated close, he drops his grammar lesson but still manages to bring parsing and passion together:

“Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan.
Don't ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan”

Language Lady thanks this Indie rocker grammar-guy for bringing “lay,” “lie,” #Miley, verb tenses, and even personal tension to our attention; after all, attention to grammar is, ideally, Present. Perfect (well, rarely, even among those who try). And Continuous.


More than one reader responded to the “Such,” “As,” and “Such as by” article with thoughts that had occurred to me early on, but got ruled out the more I researched the exact meaning of “such,” “such as,” and “such as by.” 

The feeling among these readers, who thoughtfully went through my post with a fine-toothed comb, was that “such as” and “such as by” are legitimate legal phrases and that in the given document, “such as by” implies that there are more out ways possible than the examples given, whereas “as by” implies only the given examples.

Their concern was that perhaps by tweaking the legalese the way I did, I might have also changed the meaning. Any opinions or considerations out there?

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