Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Dear Richard Lederer: For many years, my grandmother resided in a nursing home. When she developed a serious fever, an ambulance was called. One of the crew asked our family, “Does she want to go laying down or sitting up?”

We suggested, “Why don’t you ask Grandma?”

The ambulance crewman looked at us with pity: “Surely you don’t expect this 90-plus elder to be competent.”

At which point nonagenarian Grandma said to the astonished crewman, “Laying down is not correct grammar. It’s lying down.” – Laura Miner

Brava to Grandma for sticking to her grammatical guns. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported the story of another gray eminence still strong of mind and usage: “At 104, when he collapsed during a round of golf, his wife said, ‘Oh, George. Do you want to lay there a minute?’ George opened his eyes and responded, ‘Lie there,’ before passing out again.”

Lie means “to repose,” lay “to put.” Lie is an intransitive verb; it never takes an object. Lay is a transitive verb; it almost always takes an object. You lay a book on the table, after which it lies (not lays!) there.

In 2001, the Enron scandal furiously broke on the corporate horizon. Here’s a little ditty I’ve composed about the energy company, led by its founder and CEO, the late Kenneth Lay, that made an end run around business ethics:

TAKE THE MONEY ENRON
The difference between lie and lay
Has fallen into deep decay.
But now we know from Enron’s shame
That Lay and lie are just the same!

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Dear Richard Lederer: One of the speakers at the Republican convention used the word (which is not a word) irregardless. Okay, I’m a journalism grad, and I will admit I am nit-picky about our language. I’m the one who told the manager of our local grocery market that the sign in the express lane should not read “10 Items or Less.” It should read “10 items or fewer.” – Mary Jo Crowley

Irregardless, a blending of the words irrespective and regardless, is actually a word. It’s just not a standard English word. One can’t legislate the millions of people who use it out of existence, disirregardless of what anybody says.

Responding to your second narrative, less means “not so much” and refers to amount or quantity. Fewer means “not so many” and refers to number, things that are countable — less courage but fewer virtues; less nutrition but fewer calories. With those omnipresent supermarket signs and with those contests asking for responses in “25 words or less,” when will we ever learn?

My local supermarket gingerly avoids the challenge by displaying signs that announce, “No More Than 15 Items.”

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Dear Richard Lederer: I’ve looked up the words affect and effect in the dictionary, but I still don’t understand the difference between them. How can I use these words correctly and remember the difference? – Elaine Znoy

Affect, beginning with an a, is almost always a verb meaning “to have an effect on; to move or stir the emotions of,” as in “The music of Beethoven never fails to affect me powerfully.”

Almost always, affect will be the verb you’re looking for and effect the noun that means “an influence.” The most common confusion is to spell the noun effect as affect. Do not use this sentence at home, or anywhere else: “The computer exerts a powerful affect on the speed of communication.”

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Dear Richard Lederer: I don’t know if this expression has changed over time or if it’s regional, but I grew up in the Midwest saying something happened “by accident” while here on the west coast everyone seems to say it happened “on accident.” On accident has always sounded so strange to me. – Jennifer Roberts

The relatively new and widespread on accident is modeled on the opposite phrase on purpose. On accident strikes many ears as a bubble off plumb, but it may one day supplant by accident.

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Dear Richard Lederer: In the U-T Health section appeared this statement: “The CDC says one in three Americans aren’t getting enough sleep.” Should it not be “one in three Americans is not getting enough sleep”? –Louise Nixon

Spot on, target-center, Marie-Louise. The subject of the verb in question is one, so the verb should be singular — “The CDC says one in three Americans isn’t getting enough sleep.”