Onetime vs. One-time
Posted by June on November 17, 2014

Here’s a sentence with a potentially comical word choice:

“Bob and I shared a deep connection, and as a one-time partner, he will live in my memory forever.”

I know that’s a bad sentence with plenty to object to, but the issue I’m talking about is “one-time” instead of “onetime.” The one-word form, without question, means “former.” But the hyphenated form could mean someone you hooked up with exactly once.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which book publishing uses, allows “one-time” to mean “onetime," but only in a secondary definition. Other dictionaries don’t allow this at all, and according to them you and Bob didn’t have the relationship you think you did.

In editing we always go with the dictionary’s first choice, I would always reserve “one-time” for something that happened just once and use “onetime” for “former.”

You don’t have to do the same. But if you want readers to believe that you and Bob really had something special, you might want to think about it.

Lay and Lie Refresher Quiz
Posted by June on November 10, 2014


How’s your “lay” and “lie” savvy these days? These words can get fuzzy in the mind if you don’t exercise your knowledge often enough. So, with that in mind, here’s a little quiz on “lay” and “lie.”


1. If you don’t feel well, you should lie/lay down.

2. Yesterday, I didn’t feel well, so I laid/lay down.

3. Sometimes when I’ve felt sick, I’ve lain/laid/lay in bed for hours.

4. Lie/lay the book on the table.

5. Yesterday, I lay/laid the book on the table.

6. There have been many times over the years when I have lain/laid the book on the table. 


Here are the answers.

1. If you don’t feel well, you should lie down.

2. Yesterday, I didn’t feel well, so I lay down.

3. Sometimes when I’ve felt sick, I’ve lain in bed for hours.

4. Lay the book on the table.

5. Yesterday, I laid the book on the table.

6. There have been many times over the years when I have laid the book on the table.


There are two elements to getting “lie” and “lay” right. The first is understanding the basic difference between the two words. The second is knowing where to find the past tense forms.  

That last part is easy, so I’ll get that out of the way first: For the past tense forms, just look in a dictionary. Next to the main entry for any irregular verb, dictionaries always list the simple past tense form, followed by the past participle – but only if that past participle is different from the simple past tense.

So look up “lie” and you’ll see next to it “lay, lain.” Therefore, the simple past tense of “lie” is “lay.” (Confusing, I know. But if you can wrap your head around that fact, you’ve already mastered the hardest part of this.) The past participle, the one that goes with “have,” is lain.

Today I lie on the bed.

Yesterday I lay on the bed.

In the past I have lain on the bed.

For that other word, "lay," the past tense and past participle just happen to be identical: "laid."

Today I lay the book on the table.

Yesterday I laid the book on the table.

In the past I have laid the book on the table.

Notice how I keep mentioning a book with "lay" examples but not with "lie"? That brings us to the main difference between these two words. “Lay” is a transitive verb, which means it takes an object (a noun or pronoun).  “Lie” is intransitive, which means it does not.  

So whenever you’re laying *something* down, that’s transitive “lay.” If you’re just reclining, that’s intransitive “lie.” And if you can’t remember their past tense forms, just do what I did every time for about 10 years and consult a dictionary.


'Grandaunt' and 'Got'
Posted by June on November 3, 2014


Just when I think I’ve heard every dinky language complaint imaginable, something lands in my e-mail inbox to prove me wrong.

Not long ago, it was an an e-mail from a reader who had used the term “great aunt” and – get this – was corrected by a family member who said the correct term was “grandaunt.”

That would have been rude enough had she bothered to look it up first to confirm she was right. But she didn’t. Because if she had checked Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, she would have seen that grandaunt and great aunt are synonyms.

Also recently, I got an e-mail about the word “got”:

There are certain words or phrases that drive me crazy. As an example, when someone uses the word "got"; as in "you got money". This instead of you have money. ... I learned from my son that you almost never need the word "got". 

I could have brought up a couple of my own peeves, including using “or” in place of “and,” double spacing between sentences, and periods placed after closing quotation marks.

Instead I pointed out that “got” is indispensable as the past tense of “get” (“Yes, I got your e-mail”) and that it’s also acceptable both as a past participle instead of “gotten” (“I have got into trouble before with this one”) and as an idiomatic though wordy addition to “have” (“I have a lot of pennies,” “I have got a lot of pennies”).



My Favorite Line from Strunk and White
Posted by June on October 27, 2014


I’m on record as saying some not-nice things about Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”

All my criticisms boil down to the same problem: This book is not what people think it is. It’s not what marketers and publishers present it as. This book, which is marketed as timeless wisdom for the masses, is really just a list of rules for students of one English professor about a century ago, offering instructions on how to turn in papers in that particular class.

Imagine a teacher put together a list of rules on, say, classroom conduct that included the imperative “Don’t chew gum,” then 100 years later people were running around thinking no one should ever chew gum because doing so is “wrong.”

That’s the problem with “The Elements of Style.” Half its advice is great, half is either obsolete or impertinent or too broadly worded. Yet millions of people think it’s authoritative.

But it can be a great source to quote. Traditionalists love it, so when the book disagrees with the traditionalist view, it carries that much more weight. And of all the Strunk and White quotes that buck the traditionalist view, this is my favorite.

And would you write “The worst tennis player around here is I” or “The worst tennis player around here is me”? The first is good grammar, the second is good judgment

Not only is the guide telling writers to break a grammar rule, but it does so in a sentence that starts with “and.” After this pithy entry, the authors add that “‘me’ might not do in all contexts.” So they’re not saying "me" is fine all the time. They're saying that sometimes  you just have to get real.