Every time I hear it on the radio, I cringe: Eric Clapton crooning, ‘Lay down Sally!’ My heart longs to hear someone interrupt the song and say, “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No! It’s … GRAMMAR MAN!”
The Case of Eric Clapton’s 1977 hit, ‘Lay [sic] Down Sally’
In today’s episode, the villainous Mr. Slowhand has launched a sinister plot to besmirch the English language–he’s created a musical hook and riddled the title with verb confusion. Is there any hope for mankind? This looks like a job for Grammar Man!
Lay vs. Lie. What’s a writer (or public speaker) to choose?
The key to knowing when to use lay and when to use lie is to recognize the difference between a transitive verb and an intransitive verb. Note the prefix trans. Think transfer. A verb is action. A transitive verb transfers its action to an object. You with me so far? Note the pre-prefix in in the word intransitive. (I know that’s not a technical term, pre-prefix, I just made it up. I can do that. I’m Grammar Man, dammit!) The prefix in most often means not, as in indestructible, for instance. So, in other words, intransitive is a verb not transferring its action to a specific object. Still with me?
Take the verb drive. My teenager Becca wants to drive the car. Transitive! Bec wants to drive what? The car. What if a boy called, and asked if he and Becca could go for a drive? In this example, drive is intransitive. If you ask the question ‘drive what?’ you don’t get an answer. Quiz time: If a boy called suggesting he and Becca go for a drive, Dad might shoot the boy. Shoot, in that sentence–transitive or intransitive? See how easy this is? Fun, too.
Mr. Clapton should have considered a grammatically correct title. Perhaps, “Lie Down Sally” or “Lay in My Arms, Sally.” Wait a minute. Does Sally’s father own a gun?
Methinks the next time you find yourself at a Karaoke Bar and you’ve had a few beers, you should consider doing humanity a great justice. Grab a microphone. Tell the DJ to dial up the Clapton hit, and educate the people!
In our next episode, boys and girls, Grammar Man will explain what [sic] means.
What common grammar errors drive you crazy? Are there words, phrases or punctuation marks commonly misused that cause you to cringe? Can Grammar Man help?