“Who” or “Whom”? “Lay” or “Lie”? A Former Copyeditor’s Tricks for Grammatical Mastery

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“Who” or “Whom”? “Lay” or “Lie”? A Former Copyeditor’s Tricks for Grammatical Mastery

I started my career in publishing in the early nineties as a copyeditor, freelancing with several of the Big Six (at the time), a twenty-something kid from the South absolutely dazzled at the privilege of working with the big publishers in New York City on the prepublished manuscripts of my heroes: Pat Conroy, Walter Mosley, Jennifer Weiner, Lisa Wingate, and hundreds more.

A lifelong word nerd fascinated by language and grammar (I was the student who always raised her hand to race to the chalkboard for sentence diagramming, a skill I adored that’s sadly no longer taught in most schools), I loved copyediting, tedious to some but a terrific fit for me. I relished constantly learning arcane rules of usage, logical and elegant as a math problem but without math’s annoying absolutes. I loved that language adapted to the needs of the text, of the author, of the sentiment being expressed.

All that is to say that I’ve meant to write a line-editing post like this for some time, one that shares some of the common misuses of language I saw authors struggle with most frequently (and still do), and pass along some of the “shortcuts,” as I like to think of them, to mastering those vexing language bugaboos, which were generously passed along to me by the editors and authors I worked with over the years.

Language is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox, so it’s important to know how to wield it properly.

Who/whom

This one ranks right up there in most-misused words I encounter, authors tending to either randomly insert “whom” in the hope that it’s the more correct usage, or giving up and just refusing to use it at all.

Before I share the little shortcut managing editor Nora Reichard at Random House shared with me, fixing my confusion forever, this is a good place to state the Hippocratic Oath of Copyediting (as I made it up in my head during my years in this role): First do no harm.

The Hippocratic Oath of Copyediting (as I made it up in my head): First do no harm.

A mistake newer copyeditors often make is that of rigid adherence to language and grammar rules at the expense of author style or voice or the “feel” of a story. As left-brain a skill as copyediting is, it also requires some right-brain imagination and finesse to intuit whether the absolutely correct usage detracts from the author’s intentions or draws attention to itself in a way that may pull readers out of the story.

The rule in all the publishing houses I ever worked with was generally to defer to the author’s preferences, grammar be damned. While I admit that sometimes that gave me the heebie-jeebies (I’m looking at you, “snuck”), good copyediting isn’t about making prose conform to strict language rules, but rather making sure that if it doesn’t, it’s intentional on the part of the author, not an oversight.

Language, remember, isn’t math. It’s fluid and subjective, and always in service to the author’s intentions. The starkest example of this came when I worked on Chuck Palahniuk’s book Pygmy, written entirely in an aboriginal patois that would have rendered attempts to “correct” it downright destructive to the author’s vision.

Back to our little vixens “who” and “whom,” and the ridiculously easy shortcut that will save you from ever not knowing again which one to use: Mentally rework or “answer” the question implied in the sentence—for instance, “For whom the bell tolls” might become, “The bell tolls for him”; “She didn’t know who was at the door” could become, “He was at the door.”

If the reworked sentence calls for a subject pronoun (meaning the one making the action happen)—“he,” “she,” “I,” or “they”—you use “who.”  If the reworked clause refers to the object pronouns “him,” “her,” “me,” or “them” (meaning the one acted upon) you use “whom.” That’s it, easy and pretty infallible.

But per the copyeditors’ sacred oath, if an author thinks “whom” sounds too stilted for their voice or the character’s voice, then by all means intentionally misuse that little sucker.

That leads us organically to:

I/me

This is another area where authors may use the wrong pronoun out of a misunderstanding of its role in the sentence–and where the correct usage can sometimes sound wrong. Take this sentence:

My uncle left the money to my brother and me.

I’m betting a lot of you are itching to correct that ungrammatical-sounding “me” to “I,” aren’t you? (It’s okay to raise your hand. No judgment here…)

But “me” is actually correct–based on the same theory as who/whom: it’s the object of this sentence, not the subject (in easier-to-remember terms: the thing being acted upon, not the thing acting). Your uncle was the one who acted, the subject of this sentence; you merely passively received the money and were thus the object of his action. Thus “me,” the object pronoun, rather than “I,” which would be the subject pronoun.

But you don’t have to wrap yourself up in identifying the subject or object. The shortcut here is to take out the other noun(s) or pronoun(s) in the pairing or grouping: “My uncle left the money to me.” Now it’s clear intuitively that you’d never say, “My uncle left the money to I.”

Now I’ll really make your head explode—using this same shortcut, you now know that “My uncle left the money to him and me” is dead correct…even though I bet everything in you wants to change that to “he and I.”

Here’s another example:

Peter, Zahid, and I went to claim my uncle’s money.

Take out the other nouns—Peter and Zahid—and bam, you instinctively know the right word here is “I” (a.k.a. the subject—or actor—of the sentence).

Lie/lay

I’m including this here because it ties in with our subject/object theme, and because this is also probably one of the most vexing grammar bugaboos I hear authors—or everyone, really—struggle with.

Here’s the shortcut: “Lie” is something a person or thing does under its own steam; “lay” requires that something act upon it.

In other words, “The book lies on the table” (that’s where it sits, all on its own), but “She walks in and lays the book on the table” (the book is the object acted upon by the subject of the sentence, the woman).

This one is especially tricky because of the conjugations of each word:

  • Lay: The present tense is “lay,” the past tense is “laid,” and the past participle is also “laid” (“he had laid the book on the table”).
  • Lie: The present tense is “lie,” but the past tense is “lay” (“yesterday she lay on the sofa all day”), and the past participle is “lain” (“she had lain there like a corpse”).

Maddening, isn’t it? And this doesn’t even consider “lie” used to denote speaking an untruth.

The trick here is just to memorize the conjugation of each verb. Then, once you use your shortcut to know which is the correct usage, you simply plug in the right conjugation of that word.

A few more instances to help clear the murk:

  • “Go lie down!” (Hopefully spoken to your dog and not your spouse.) BUT “The vet lays the dog down on its side.”
  • “She is lying on the sofa” BUT “He lays her on the sofa” if he carries and puts her there. (Now, I know where your little gutter minds are going, readers. And yes, you’re right—if they are having conjugal relations, he also is laying her on the sofa in another way as well….)
  • No disrespect to Bob Dylan, but “Lay, Lady, Lay” is nails-on-a-chalkboard incorrect. Technically she lies upon that big brass bed, dammit.
  • By contrast, well done, Snow Patrol: Your “If I Lay Here” is deliciously grammatical, because the correct verb “lie” is used in the subjunctive tense here—meaning a statement contrary to fact, i.e., “if I were to lie here (even though I’m not right now)”—which correctly conjugates as “lay” in this usage. This song’s meticulous grammar gives me shivers of word-nerd delight.

All right, that’s far enough into the rabbit hole for one post. If you guys dig this kind of post I’ll make it a series, so let me know what you think in the comments—I keep long lists of common usage and grammar mistakes, and I’d love to share more of them if they’re of interest.

40 Comments. Leave new

  • Yes, a common grammar mistakes post would be right for me. I have struggled with the lie/lay usage. Memorizing the sequence lay, laid, laid and lie, lay, lain works for me. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Love this, it’s so useful, thank you.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 3:23 pm

      Thanks for weighing in! I’d love to share more grammar shortcuts if they’re useful.

      Reply
  • Patricia Sands
    August 19, 2021 1:03 pm

    Thanks for this. As an elementary school teacher, the I/me lesson was a big focus with those little learners. 🙂

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 3:24 pm

      Ha! Start ’em young, right? 🙂 I wish we dedicated more time and space to teaching this sort of thing–including diagramming sentences. It’s not arcane; we use these skills in communication every day, and for better or worse people’s impressions of us are often formed in part from how we express ourselves. Thanks, Patricia.

      Reply
  • Katherine Pepper
    August 19, 2021 1:33 pm

    Wonderful breakdown of grammatical bugs. How about tackling ‘bring’ and ‘take’ for some more fun!

    Reply
  • Next up, maybe? A real toughie: “that” or “which.” Good luck on that (or which).

    Reply
    • And the differences in accepted British and American usage of “that’ and “which”! (ie are they opposite?)

      Reply
      • Tiffany Yates Martin
        August 19, 2021 3:27 pm

        Excellent point. British/American usage differences can add to the vexation of some of these areas (don’t even get me started on quotation marks…). Thanks for weighing in!

        Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 3:25 pm

      HAHAHA!! 😀 I WILL tackle that–with relish. It’s a fun one. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Reply
  • Thank God for copy editors…because though these have been explained to me a zillion times, I can’t remember them when I need them. I figure if these are the only things I get wrong (they’re not-I have comma-drama), I can live with it.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 3:26 pm

      Hopefully these little shortcuts help. To me they’re like Waldo–once you see them, you’ll never unsee them again.

      Reply
  • Peter W Arzberger
    August 19, 2021 1:47 pm

    I look forward to your weekly posts. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Martha Eddleman
    August 19, 2021 3:22 pm

    A helpful hint for me was:

    chickens lay eggs and past tense on my purchase of “New laid eggs.”

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 3:29 pm

      Oh, very nice. I really love little mnemonics like this that strip through what can sometimes be opaque grammar “rules.”

      Reply
  • I am thrilled by “First, do no harm!” Grammar is a fine servant and a terrible master. If what is written is clear and understandable, unlikely to be confused or confusing, and if it contributes to the author’s style or intent, it’s OK even if it’s not correct.
    I don’t think in grammatically correct language, and I often choose to speak less than grammatically. Most of my characters are the same. So much of what I write – the action, the ‘show, don’t tell’ part – is what my characters think and say, that I am pretty free with grammar. It’s not entirely ignorance. I understand that I’m breaking some rules even if I can’t quote them.

    My nemesis is punctuation. I understand and even remember some of it, enough to rise above my background, but the rules seem endless, infinite, and sometimes arcane. Any help you can offer with that will be enthusiastically received.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 8:49 pm

      I agree–I think slavish devotion to grammar “rules” can come at the expense of style and voice and free expression. I have so much love and respect for “proper” usage, but the first priority is the work itself and what best serves it. Like you, I am often deliberately not strictly grammatical for the sake of voice or humor or originality or inclusion (pronouns) or simply to avoid a formal or stilted effect. Those who consider themselves the Grammar Police can be pretty fervent, though. 🙂

      Oh, friend, YES, I can share some punctuation fun. I’ve got lots of tips about using my beloved em-dash, the much-maligned and misunderstood semicolon (so elegant in its place), the rampantly abused comma…and don’t even get me going about quotation marks. I’m delighted this feature seems to appeal to so many authors! I love this stuff and I’ll look forward to sharing more. Thanks for the comment, Bob–as always it’s nice to see you here.

      Reply
  • Yes! Thanks for this, Tiffany. More tips would be great.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 8:51 pm

      I’m so pleased so many authors want to hear more about this stuff! My husband certainly doesn’t. 😀 Thanks, Jan.

      Reply
  • Denise M Jendusa
    August 19, 2021 6:33 pm

    I love your post. I, too, was the child who dashed to the blackboard to diagram a sentence for the class. My third grade teacher told me I would be a writer, and she was right. I thoroughly enjoy your posts, articles, and humorous points of view. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 8:50 pm

      Ah, my people! 🙂 Sentence diagrams are marvelous–elegant and fun and analytical, and such a visceral and practical way to teach grammar. I mourn their passing. Thanks so much for the kind words, Denise–they’re nice to hear.

      Reply
  • MS JOCOSA WADE
    August 19, 2021 9:58 pm

    This rocks. A keeper. Please make it a series. xoxo

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 19, 2021 9:58 pm

      Thanks, Jocosa. I am ridiculously happy that people enjoy this stuff as much as I do–these are fun to write. 🙂

      Reply
  • I especially appreciated your comments about the mistakes newer copyeditors make and the importance of preserving the writer’s style, pointing out there is a “right way” to break rules as well as a wrong way. Novice critique groups make this mistake, too. Also . . . another tricky usage choice is between “on to” and “onto,” and then there is that irritating (to me) mistake so many people make, “Me and my wife went to the store,” etc., etc., etc.. That one makes me wince every time I hear it. Would the guy say “Me went to the store”? Duh. No.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 20, 2021 11:50 am

      The Cookie Monster might! 😀 Nuance is everything in language and writing, for sure, and absolutism works for grammar texts but not creative writing (or speech, frankly, where rigidly adhering to grammar rules would make us all sound like automatons). As long as it’s done for a reason and with intention, and doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding or immersion into the story, that’s always my bar as an editor–though I adore proper usage and the structure and logic it offers us. “Onto” and “on to” is a good one–I’m adding it to my list. Thanks for the comment, Martta.

      Reply
  • Loved this column and then all the comments. Is there some reason I feel deeply comfortable in the company of word nerds? Oh.
    I are one!! 😀😀

    Reply
  • Great post. I’m enjoying all of your blogs.
    The phrase that drives me nuts is when I hear intelligent people say “him and I”. That’s worse than nails on a chalkboard

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 20, 2021 10:24 pm

      I get that! It lacks parallel structure and logic. We who revere grammar/language are easily bruised by its misuse. 😉 Thanks for the kind words, Linda!

      Reply
  • Fliss Zakaszewska
    August 21, 2021 12:40 pm

    Great post and yes, fab to see a proper ‘Prudence Pedantic’.

    I’ve arm-wrestled an occasional editor over an ‘error’ because I wanted the character to ‘sound’ like that. However…

    Which / that… Does my English head in! “The parcel WHICH he picked up” or “The parcel THAT he picked up. Any chance of a post on those two annoying little bunnies sometime?

    Anyway, Prudence WHO (not whom…)?

    Prudence Pedantic, went pos’tively frantic
    When her young cousin said “ain’t”,
    But when her small brother, said “ain’t got none, n’other”
    She reclined right into a faint.

    Reply
    • Fliss Zakaszewska
      August 21, 2021 12:42 pm

      Arghhhhh! Proofread! That was EDITOR of course!

      Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 21, 2021 4:43 pm

      Thanks for the hilarious verse. 🙂 And yes, “which/that” has gotten a fair number of votes so far, and it’s high on the list for future posts (but after “that/which,” WHICH seems to be vexing many folks). Appreciate your weighing in, Fliss!

      Reply
  • I’ve been telling myself I’m a writer, but maybe I’m actually an editor. If anyone was eavesdropping outside my door while I was reading this post, they probably thought something more R-rated was happening. Please make it a series and continue my pleasure!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      August 23, 2021 11:49 am

      😀 Thanks for making my day with this comment. I had no idea I had so many kindred spirits out there with this topic! (I tell my husband all the time he wooed me with verbiage.)

      Reply

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