Reader R.L. Krause nailed us on a grammatical error that shouldnâ€™t have gotten into the paper. He wrote, â€œSection B of the Eagle of 9/11/06 contains what I consider an error in usage which should have been unlearned in grade school, certainly in high school. On page 1B, left hand column, ‘Police Investigate…..’ the story states that ‘officers found a 26-year-old male laying in the street…..’ Any journalism major (or any high school graduate) should not make that error."
Michael Roehrman, our copy desk chief, is in charge of copy editing functions at The Eagle. He writes:
There really is no excuse for lay/lie error. I did some checking around to see if it trips up others and found an interesting comment from Theodore Bernstein, a former editor at the New York Times. In â€œDos, Donâ€™ts & Maybes of English Usage,â€ he wrote, â€œMany people seem to have more trouble with these two verbs than with any others.â€ While that may be true, the rule is simple and Iâ€™ll re-emphasize it to our copy editors: Lay is a transitive verb â€” it requires a direct object. Please lay the book on my desk. Lie is an intransitive verb â€” it canâ€™t take a direct object. I told my dog to lie down.
Grammar changes, and copy editors have to find the acceptable space where traditional grammar rules mingle with modern usage. However, I donâ€™t see the lay/lie rule weakening or changing at any point soon.
I should note that being a grammar cop is just one role of copy editors. We also check facts, proofread, spot holes in stories, write headlines, look for libel, make sure a story balances all viewpoints, check attribution and much more.
In my opinion, our primary role is reader representative. We come to stories without preconceived notions or knowledge of what went into the reporting and writing. Weâ€™re a fresh set of eyes that notice if something is missing or unclear. Factual and grammatical errors jump out at us as they would to readers. If something is over- or under-written we notice and either fix it or ask the reporter or editor to do so.
After the editing is finished, copy editors write the headline. While a person can memorize grammar rules, writing headlines requires using the other side of your brain. But thatâ€™s a discussion for another blog post all its own.