A few recently observed errors prompted me to issue some gentle reminders.
The words lay and lie are two words that lie in wait for unwary writers, ready to trap us in errors. A photo caption in a recent issue of our own Idaho Statesman asked, Have some old athletic shoes laying around? (Oct. 20). Oops! Those shoes should have been lying around. Lay is an active (transitive) verb that needs an object. Please lay the book on the table. Lie is intransitive (no object). It means to recline in a horizontal position on a flat plane. She learned to lie on the floor to ease the pain in her back. The past tense of lie is lay. She lay on the floor for fifteen minutes. Hint: If youre not sure, use another word: Please put the book on the table. She rested on the floor.
When I used to tell my dog to Lay down, my father would chide me that only ducks lay down. Admittedly, my father was silly. But his words stayed with me and serve as a reminder to this day. I ask my dog to lie down. Sometimes she complies.
The words fewer and less also often cause confusion. An ad I saw recently called for More science. Less wrinkles. I believe it should have called for fewer wrinkles. The general rule is to use fewer with count nouns, something you can count, and less with mass nouns, things you cant count individually. I imagine that most of us hope our wrinkles remain in the realm of the countable, not the mass. Thus, we have less food, fewer than six eggs.
It is also generally accepted that we use less when referring to time, money and distance, even though the minutes and miles are indeed countable. So when someone tells you, I live less than three miles away, his or her grammar is correct. I cant speculate on the accuracy of the mileage estimate.
This reminds me that mileage can also be correctly spelled milage. However, theres only one way to spell fodder prepared by fermenting green forage plants in a silo: silage.
To continue the discussion of confusing and often misused words, lets consider this trio: disburse, disperse, and dispel. Disburse means to pay out or to expend funds. It is used exclusively in reference to money. Disperse means to break up and scatter in various directions. Disperse is a synonym of dispel, which also means to cause to separate and go in various directions. Doubts can be dispelled but not disbursed. Dollars are disbursed.
Another frequently abused word is prone. Prone means lying face down. Its important to distinguish it from supine, which means lying face up. Although I generally remind myself by thinking of on the spine for supine, Common Errors in English Usage (http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/) mentions that some people use soup in navel as their reminder.
One of my frequent sources for ideas and answers about word use is Daily Writing Tips (www.dailywritingtips.com). There I learned that the words preventative and preventive both date back to the 1600s. However, their writer and I agree that preventive is the better choice, chiefly because the extra syllable is superfluous.
The site also gives a detailed description of the difference between denounce and renounce. If I denounce the use of preventative, I am condemning it openly and externally. Should you agree with me, then you may choose to renounce, or give up, its use.
None of these distinctions is easy. Thats why I try to include references and remind myself and you, When in doubt, look it up. And why I always welcome your corrections and suggestions.
Kathy McIntosh: Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word. firstname.lastname@example.org