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Who Do We Think We Are?

While surfing the Web one morning, I came across a headline that included the words “laying in bed.” Rather than going off like a troll in the comments, I shared the following snarky wisdom with my social networks: “LIE. You LIE in bed. You don’t LAY in bed. #lostcauses.”

Almost immediately I received a flurry of “likes” and commiserating comments from about a dozen other professors in multiple states and even across the sea. They added several other pet peeves that people who read a lot of papers encounter often: irregardless, impactful, less/fewer. It was finals-grading season, after all, and the thread got so slap-happy that you could practically hear everyone laughing out loud. I had relieved myself of a minor irritation, allowed a host of others to vent as well, and created a sense of professorial camaraderie in the process. Mission accomplished.

But then I got a private message from a student who found my post insulting to people who struggle with grammar. “It ignores their family background, what kind of schooling they may have, and any learning disabilities. … My grammar suffers because of all three of these factors, … but I would never say I am a lost cause.”

In my mind, it was clear that the “lost cause” to which I was referring was trying to hold back the tide of Americans using “lay” as an intransitive verb; everyone does it now, even the supposed arbiters of nerd culture, like NPR. But this was not clear to my student, and I had made him feel alienated. I apologized profusely, and he graciously accepted my apology.

It was an important opportunity for a bit of self-reflection. Why should I be so irritable about grammar in general, and about this construction in particular? It would be easy enough to lay the blame (transitive; takes an object) on my mother, who insisted that I learn this distinction; or on her father, who insisted that she learn it. Or perhaps the blame lies (intransitive; takes no object) with Mrs. Crane and Mrs. Jackson, my high-school English teachers, for doing their jobs; or with Strunk and White for presenting such a logical rationale for lay/lie.

In reality, though, I think the issue is much more subtle. For one thing, language is a sport at which geeks can excel; it’s what we cerebral kids had going for us when we couldn’t play basketball or field hockey, a tiny way to feel confident, even superior, in a world that otherwise did not celebrate our gifts. Grammar is a somewhat arbitrary and conspicuous marker of brains—but even more important, of class. It’s about what the economist Thorstein Veblen called “invidious distinction.” As my student reminded me, knowing the difference between “lay” and “lie” comes from having leisure time for school, parents who cared about grammar, and the money to attend school among kids who also had leisure time and parents who cared about grammar. Distinguishing between “lay” and “lie” thereby becomes a shibboleth; insiders are those we must take seriously, while outsiders can be summarily dismissed.

This realization was accompanied by some dismay, since I—and most of my esteemed colleagues—would protest that we don’t actually feel superior or care about something as vulgar as class. “We care only about clarity of presentation,” we tell ourselves. “All we want is for our students to be understood when they write or speak.” And to a certain extent this is true. We want our students’ education to be worth something to them, no less for their own internal thought processes than for their ability to achieve the goals in graduate school or career or family life that they want.

But is there not also a less noble purpose to our frequent griping about nonstandard (not to say substandard) use of English? By ritually rehearsing others’ failures over and over again, whether on Facebook or in the faculty lounge, are we not solidifying a sense of “us” and “them” that helps us to feel important or relevant? Especially living, as we do now, in a cultural flood of anti-intellectualist fervor that seems determined to wash away any kind of knowledge that does not obviously translate into immediate financial returns, is not our sense of linguistic propriety a tiny life raft to which we can cling for safety?

That life raft will not save us, especially if we also use it—consciously or unconsciously—as a weapon for alienating our students and the general public. A recent experience was instructive in this regard. I wrote a short essay for an edited e-book, and upon its publication I discovered that an editor had “corrected” my essay to include the phrase “therein lays the problem.” (The horror! The horror!) Karma can be a bitter pill. A whirl of shame and other unpleasant reactions fluttered around my brain: Everyone will think I’m stupid. Could I have possibly written that myself? Maybe no one will notice. Most urgently, I did not want people to think less of me and my ideas. I even felt angry at hypothetical readers who might dismiss my chapter because of one tiny word that had nothing to do with the main point of what I was trying to say.Having thus fallen victim to my own variety of harsh judgment, why would I persist in dispensing it?

The survival of a thriving academe, it seems to me, depends upon our walking a very fine line between what we know and what everyone else knows; between the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of the present and future. There is indeed value in the places we’ve been; we do stand on the shoulders of giants. But not all value lies in the past, and we don’t do ourselves any favors by clinging to values that no longer serve their purposes. The future is laid out before us. Therein lays our challenge.

Kathryn D. Blanchard is an associate professor of religious studies at Alma College.

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