February 07, 2007

Cavett kvetches

In his first blog post at the NYT ("It's only language", 2/4/2007), Dick Cavett keeps his emotions in check as he recites his catechism of linguistic complaints. He does threaten that "if I ever find myself once again with the senator who spoke of his 'incredulous' experiences, I shall pop him one" -- but has anyone who said "I shall pop him one" ever actually done so?

Though he has better self-control than drone man, Cavett is clearly one of those people that David Foster Wallace calls "snoots", whose focus is on their own emotional reactions to real or imagined errors, rather than on the true history and current state of the language. Cavett's discussion of lie vs. lay is a case in point.

It’s gotten so bad for “lie” and “lay” that if a candidate got the votes of only those who don’t know the difference, it would be a landslide. Upon hearing, “He was outside laying on the lawn,” I remember being glad my dad thought I was worldly enough to get it when he asked, “And who was under him on the lawn?” Wouldn’t anybody just know you wouldn’t “lie it on the table”? Try playing it as it lies. It works just as well.

This is so carelessly written that it's hard to tell what he's trying to say. But I think he's telling us that it's prescriptively "correct" to say "play it as it lays", and wrong to say "play it as it lies" -- which is false, as you can learn from Geoff Pullum's classic post, "Lie or lay? Some disastrously unhelpful guidance" (5/10/2004), and Arnold Zwicky's earlier remarks in "Sometimes you just have to play it as it lays".

Cavett's style of usage demagoguery is obviously popular -- his maiden post has garnered 509 comments so far (though I'm afraid you'll have to sign up for Times Select to read them). Well, when the word rage subsides, we'll be here to provide therapy and rehabilitation for the survivors.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 7, 2007 06:19 PM