Errors & Omissions: Time to lay down the rules for those awkward transitive verbs

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The Independent Online

Here is a bit of grammar. The verbs "lie" and "lay", and their respective past tenses and past participles, are the occasion of endless confusion.

Even so elegant a writer as Bruce Anderson can trip up. Here he is, writing on Monday about the Irish clerical sex abuse scandal: "Thus did the children whimper themselves to sleep. Thus did a religion of love express itself in Catholic Ireland. Thus were lain the foundations of abused personalities."

That should be "laid", not "lain".

Many people are not clearly aware that "lie" and "lay" are two different verbs. (Bruce, I am sure, is aware of that – he has merely confused their past participles.) Both derive from the same Old Teutonic root, and both summon up similar pictures in the mind – of persons or things stretched out in a horizontal posture. If I lay a brick it will lie where I put it.

"Lie" is an intransitive verb meaning to assume a recumbent position; "lay" is transitive and means to place or dispose. Those definitions are absurdly abbreviated. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary devotes a column and a half to "lie" and a full three columns to "lay". Each word has many shades of meaning. And the worst source of confusion is that the past tense of "lie" is "lay".

Here's how it works. "Lie" has the past tense "lay" – "Last night, I lay down to sleep" – and the past participle "lain" – "No sooner had I lain down to sleep than ...". "Lay" has "laid" as both past tense and past participle.

Evil spell: Here is another dodgy pair of related words. Graham Pointon writes in to draw attention to this, from a personal finance page article published last Saturday: "Ruse says it's best to compliment any private pension with substantial investments."

That should be "complement". Professional writers should get such things right, but it is difficult to deny that the distinction in spelling between "complement" and "compliment" is a functionless nuisance.

They are doublets: this to say, they were originally the same word, but have diverged in form. We pronounce them both the same, without confusing our meaning. Both derive from the Latin complere, to fill up.

"Complement" arrives in English direct from Latin in the Middle Ages, meaning to make complete. Then the word arrives again in the 17th century, this time by way of French and Italian, having acquired a letter "i" in the middle and the meaning of a formal expression of courtesy.

What we have here is one word with two meanings. That's not unusual. Nothing is gained by a single letter distinction in spelling that most people cannot remember. But then, when did English spelling ever make sense?

Feminine ending: Sometimes, however, a single letter makes a big difference, In a column on Thursday, Katy Guest commented on the advertising campaign for "a new form of sanitary protection, the Mooncup". She wrote: "In matters sanitary, there are two types of woman, the type who butchly gets to grips with avant-garde medical-grade silicon items, and the type who ...occasionally 'has the decorators in', wants Hallmark cards on Valentine's Day and buys polyester nighties with little pink bears on them."

This is territory where a gentleman should fear to tread, but I do imagine that the avant-garde sanitary items are less likely to be made of silicon, a metalloid element found in semiconductors, than of medical-grade silicone, the rubber-like polymer used for surgical implants.

Only in America: It happens to all of them in the end: reporters who are sent to America eventually go native. Guy Adams reported from Los Angeles on Thursday: "After simmering for months, a dispute over the alleged liberalism of James Cameron's film Avatar went viral yesterday."

I do not say that "alleged liberalism" is out-and-out wrong, but it looks odd. "Alleged" is definitely pejorative; nobody ever alleges anything good. And in this country, liberalism with a small "l" is generally seen as a good thing, going along with liberty and liberality. Politicians of all shades of opinion will lay claim to "liberal values". In the US, on the other hand, liberalism means left-wing politics, and plenty of people heartily dislike it. So in America liberalism is something you can allege.