Ask Me: Prepositions
I am a university student (a very mature student), studying Modern Languages and Second Language Education. I find it odd that I feel like I am getting less confident in my language skills the more I study language (in fact, I am feeling self-conscious as I write to you now–I hope this feeling will eventually go away). Anyway, I wonder about using the preposition at instead of in. Please consider this example: “We are living at a time when almost anyone can obtain a university degree.” I have spoken this way, and heard others do the same, but is it correct? Another example is, “I am a student at university.” I do not think it is, but it nags at me, and I am too embarrassed to ask one of my professors.
“Correctness” of prepositions is a notoriously dicey proposition (no pun intended), so please don’t be embarrassed! That is, a lot of the time, their use is purely idiomatic, with no particular relation to the meaning of the word. One example is the preposition that comes after “enamored” in the expression that means “in love with.” “Enamored of” used to be prevalent; now, I think, “enamored with” is more popular. In your example, I personally would use the word “in” instead of “at,” but judging from your experience, I bet “at” is gaining favor and will eventually prevail.”At university” is the prevalent British usage, I think. Americans would tend to say “I am a college student,” or “I am in college.” You don’t say where you live. From this example, and because you identify yourself as “a university student,” my guess is the U.K., or at least a Commonwealth country.
Ask Me: Lie or Lay?
When I was young, as part of her regular grammar corrections, my mother would say, “People lie, chickens lay eggs.” Apparently people regularly lay eggs or the use of “to lie” in the sense of being in a horizontal position has all but disappeared. I almost never hear anything but “lay” when people mean “lie.” E.g., “I was laying around yesterday” or “I’m laying on my bed.”
Unfortunately for me, this particular use (misuse) always makes me cringe, even as I try to be open to evolving language. It seems I’m either going to have to adjust or live with visions of humans laying eggs all about. In British writing, I do see lie used correctly where U.S. writers would use lay. Based on this fact alone, I have contemplated emigrating to the UK! Do you have any thoughts on the usage of these two verbs?–Allison McNeill
Well, maybe “all but disappeared” is an exaggeration, but Allison is definitely right about the popularity of “lay” as present tense for the act of assuming a supine position. To give one example out of millions, The Oakland Tribune last week had this headline: “Girlfriend says Waterford man threatened to lay down on railroad track.”
It’s a little hard to precisely calculate the relative popularity of “lie” and “lay” in this context, since the latter has a lot of traditional present-tense transitive uses (not only what chickens do, but “lay down arms,” “lay a carpet,” “lay down the law,” and a venerable off-color use, alluded to in a famous Dorothy Parker crack). To eliminate some of these, I set up a Google Fight for the phrases “to lay around” and “to lie around.” “Lay” won by a more than 50 percent margin:
As Allison’s mother’s dictum suggests, this usage, and the dismay over it, have both been around a long time. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, predictably, shows that it’s been used by well-respected authors including Byron (“there let him lay”), O.Henry (“he laid down on his side of the bed”), William Faulkner (“he knowed where that old soon of a gun would be laying”), Flannery O’Connor (“I’m letting it lay”), and Harry Truman (“I don’t want anybody … to lay down on the job”). But note that Truman was talking in an interview, the O’Connor quote is from a letter, and the O.Henry and Faulkner examples are from an untutotored narrator and character, respectively. The point being that this usage has long been quite common in speech and other informal uses. And clearly, far from disappearing, it is inexorably rising.
Allison is right on the U.K. thing–all of the writers mentioned are American (except for Byron, and Merriam-Webster’s thinks he just used it for the sake of a rhyme with “spray” and “bay”). So, to answer your question, my main thought is that if you want be shielded from this, make sure your visa is in order.
Ask Me: Origin of “Don’t Sleep On…”
What’s the origin of the suddenly ubiquitous “Don’t sleep on. . .” as a swap for “don’t underestimate”? It’s everywhere in sports the last year or two–Jeff MacGregor, ESPN, via Twitter (@MacGregorESPN)
I had to somewhat sheepishly tell Jeff that I had never enountered the expression. And there went my best excuse for watching so much sports on TV, viz., that at least it gives me a total command of sports announcers’ cliches. Checking the various databases, I saw, first, that he was right about the current popularity. Among hundreds of other examples, I found this line from a fantasy baseball blog: “Don’t sleep on using your disabled list spots in the draft.” (Don’t know that that one means, either.)
Going back in time on the databases, one of the most recent non-sports uses I found was from a 2009 Renita Walker novel, What’s Done in the Dark: “Don’t sleep on that second CD. It was the shit too.” That led me to hypothesize that the expression originated in African-American vernacular. The hypothesis was borne out as I got in the linguistic wayback machine:
- “‘Don’t sleep on Oprah,’ said Columbia resident Jessica Jackson as she cheered wildly when Winfrey took the stage.”–Jet, 2007
- “Don’t sleep on me homey, I bring nightmares to reality.” “Dreams,” a song by the rapper The Game, 2005
- “Don’t sleep on Lil’ Fizz. He got a lil’ flow.”–Vibe, 2004
- “Don’t sleep on C. DeLores Tucker, 67, the head of the National Political Congress of Black Women and lately (along with former drug czar William Bennett) one of the biggest critics of ‘gangsta rap.'”–Vibe, 1995
- “Don’t sleep on ‘Go Wit The Flo,’ a jazzy rap-singing cut on Full Force’s Capitol long-player.”–Billboard, 1992
Dylan and AABA