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Master the use of "lay" and "lie"
Passive Voice, or It has been brought to my attention...
I, Me, Mine

This essay first appeared in print at The Writer's Lounge.

Lay, Lady, Lay

"Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed." So sang Bob Dylan, and with those words condemned a generation of writers to confusion where "lay" and "lie" are concerned. I can't tell you how often I see the question come up in the various writing groups I belong to online and off. Sometimes the question is followed by a confident, "I'm pretty sure I know which one, but I just want to double-check." This is frequently followed by, "I was wrong!" and much forehead slapping.

However, this is one that I am very confident on (running for my McGraw Hill grammar reference schoolbook from the '60's and flipping to page 120). The biggest part of the confusion, as I see it, is that the simple past form of "lie" is "lay", and that throws our minds for a loop. We want simplicity in our language. Being a writer is hard enough without the present tense of one word doubling as the past tense for another. It borders on the downright rude. How can you find just the right word when it's running off and taking on new meanings? Let's sort it out.

Do you remember studying grammar in school? Remember learning the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs? Yes? No? Not sure? Here's a quick summing up: a transitive verb takes an object. For instance: I threw the ball. The word "I" is the subject of the verb and "ball" is the direct object; the thing being acted on. An intransitive verb does not require an object: I walked. Some verbs switch back and forth, but we're not going there today.

No, instead, we're going to have a refresher on tenses. I know you know them, but it never hurts to go over them again. The main tenses are present, past and future. These are the nice, simple ones: I am, I was, I will be. Then there are the perfect tenses: present perfect, past perfect and future perfect: I have been, I had been, I will have been. These are samples of the indicative mood, active voice, simple form. There is also the progressive form (I am driving), passive voice (I am driven) and imperative (Drive!) and subjunctive moods (if I drive), but we're not going there, either. Have a cup of tea and absorb this information dump. When you're ready, we'll move on.

To make all the tenses, we have to have all the parts of a verb: the present, past and past participle. It's okay, really. Take a deep breath and check them out.

Present
Past
Past Participle
Lie:
lie
lay
lain
Lay:
lay
laid
laid

Okay, you're all refreshed on transitive and intransitive and the tenses. Are you ready for what's next? Here we go: "Lie" is an INtransitive verb. I lie on the bed. You lie on the couch. He lies on the rug. They lie down. Notice that no one is doing anything to anything else. We're all just lying around. Past tense: I lay on the bed. You lay on the couch. He lay on the rug. They lay down. Past participle: I have lain on the bed. You have lain on the couch. He has lain on the rug. They have lain down. Again, no one has done anything to an object. We have lain around long enough. On to "lay".

"Lay" is a transitive verb, so it needs an object. I lay the keys on the table. You are laying the plates on the counter. He lays the rug on the floor. (Presumably before he lies down on it.) Past and past participle tenses: I laid the keys on the table. You laid the plates on the counter. He has laid the rug on the floor and is now lying on it.

See? It's really very simple. Just remember the three parts of the verbs and which one takes an object. Maybe Bob Dylan's song will help, after all. Cut this article out, lay it down where you can see it, then lie down and sing to yourself, "Lie, lady, lie. Lie across my big brass bed."

© 2000 C.E. Barrett

Active or Passive? How to tell the difference

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"Passive voice should be avoided." seems to be the current advice going around a myriad writers' circles on the Internet. It's not bad advice, but the difficult part is that many people don't really understand what constitutes the passive voice. What is it, exactly, that makes writing active or passive? Some say it is the mere presence of a form of the verb "to be" which renders a sentence passive. They're wrong. Let me explain.

Lately, in at least four different writing lists, I have encountered writers who say they are trying to remove all instances of "to be" plus words ending in "ing" from their writing. They have been advised that their writing is passive and these culprits must be weeded out. The only problem with the advice is that this is not what makes writing passive.

Any time the subject of the sentence is performing the action, the voice is active. The subject is active, even if he is doing something, or was going somewhere. If she does something or went somewhere, it's active voice. Look at this example:

Bob was cooking supper when a tree fell through his window.

See? Bob, who is the subject of the main clause, is active. He was doing something. He hadn't finished cooking; he was still at the stove when the tree shattered the window. "Was cooking" implies that this was ongoing at the time of the next incident.

Passive voice happens when the subject is being acted on. Or, in other words, is being passive. Here we go with another sample:

Bob was hit when the tree fell through the window.

Notice that Bob himself did nothing. He was on the receiving end of the action, so you have a passive subject, and passive voice. It is this that you shouldn't overuse in your writing. Which brings me to my next point.

Sometimes, passive voice is necessary for the right effect, and if that's the case, USE IT. In my own current novel-under-construction, I use this sentence:

Anyria was dragged screaming from the cottage.

I could have said: "The soldiers dragged the screaming Anyria from the cottage.", and used the active voice, but I want readers to focus on Anyria and her helplessness, not on the soldiers. In my opinion, the first has more impact as readers feel for her. The second sample draws reader attention to the soldiers, and they're not as important at the moment.

Passive voice is also rampant in government, news reporting, business and the court room. You see things like "It has been brought to my attention...", or "I was told...", or "The meeting was held...", or better yet "The victim was shot." Not a single person did anything in any of those samples. It's wonderful for avoiding charges of libel and slander.

However, like many other things in our writing, it should never be overdone. Anything done to extremes weakens your writing, whether you write fiction, non-fiction or even poetry. Find the balance that works for you and if the passive voice is called for, don't be afraid of it. It shouldn't be avoided forever.

© 2000 C.E. Barrett

I, Me, Mine

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So many of us, while growing up, misused "me" so much and were corrected so often and told that we should have been using "I" instead, now use I when me is called for. This has really become a huge pet peeve of mine because the rule of when to use I or me is one of the easiest rules in English grammar.

First, we have to go back to subject and object, nominative case and objective case; in other words: I, he, she, they and we versus me, him, her, them and us. When we use pronouns as the subject of the sentence, the one doing the action, then we have to use subjective case. I went to the store. He bought a new pen. They ran down the street. When the pronoun is the object of the action, whether direct: Susan kissed him. or indirect: Larry gave a bottle of wine to us. the necessary case is the objective.

Where people get carried away and make all kinds of mistakes is when you have more than one pronoun or a name and a pronoun. We probably all remember saying "My friend and me went to the store" and being corrected to say "My friend and I went to the store" instead. And correctly so. Drop "My friend" and you have "me went to the store" versus "I went to the store" and itís easy to see whatís right.

What I keep hearing and reading nowadays is this: "They gave a party for Susan and I" or "They held a benefit for him and I" or sometimes "for he and I" and all of these samples set my brain on edge. Just as in the samples in the paragraph above, where we dropped the other person to find out whether me or I went to the store, so do we drop out the other person in these samples. What we are left with is: "They gave a party for I", "They held a benefit for I" and weíre not even going to talk about "for he and I" because itís so blatantly wrong.

If the party was for me, then it was for Susan and me. If something was given to me, then it was to him and me, her and me, them and me. Do not mix and match the cases: no "she and him", "her and I", or "us and they". I am not the only editor who will view this sort of disregard of grammar and proper English with a jaundiced eye and toss the story or article aside without reading any farther.

Remember this simple rule: reduce the sentence to its simplest form and find out if it requires nominative case (subject doing or being) or objective (object being acted on), correct the pronoun and then add in the other people. You wonít go wrong with that, unless you have no grasp of grammar whatsoever, and in that case, perhaps a remedial English course would not be a bad idea.

Happy writing.

© 2005 C.E. Barrett