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Let it Lay

Rosie Right

A reader, Micki Warren, has asked Rosie to discuss the misuse of the words lie, lay and laid. This column has bemoaned the prevalent ignorance about the "proper" usage not once but at least twice through the years. It is one of the battles that Rosie deeply regrets, but she is admitting defeat. Even people Rosie had previously considered educated seem oblivious to the difference between the forms of the word lie.

The reader who called no doubt was schooled by writing teachers such as the famous William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. These two succinct and graceful writers told us in their "Elements of Style":

"Except in slang ('let it lay'), do not misuse [lay] for lie. The hen, or the play, lays an egg; the llama lies down. The playwright went home and lay down. … [L]ie; lay; lain [how long since you have heard this word?]; lying; lay; laid; laid; laying."

Strangely enough, the trouble with the usage of this verb has been with us for a long time. H. L. Mencken in The American Language Supplement One quotes John Witherspoon, "a Briton living in America" who was president of Princeton, a member of the Continental Congress, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon listed a number of "American vulgarisms" that included "lay for lie."

There are times when it seems impossible to stop the sloppy changes we deplore. This seems to be one of them.

When is a prune a plum?

According to the April-May 2001 issue of the newsletter Copy Editor, the change Rosie reported a while ago is progressing very well: Prunes are now being marketed as "dried plums."

Copy Editor tells us: "According to a February article by Philip Brasher for The Associated Press, 'industry research shows that women between the ages of 35 to 50 overwhelmingly preferred the term 'dried plum.' (In that sentence 'to' should be 'and.') Brasher quotes Richard Peterson, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, once the California Prune Board: 'The stereotype among the women that we're targeting is of a medicinal food for their parents. …That's what we're trying to get around.' "

But the Food and Drug Administration has decreed that prune juice will remain just that. Dried plum juice is a contradiction in terms.

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