Tricky grammar: dangling modifiers, lie/lay, I/me

Tricky grammar: dangling modifiers, lie/lay, I/me

In a previous part of my life, I was an English professor. In that role, I wound up repeatedly explaining bits of grammar that writers tripped over again and again. Three of these were the dangling modifier, the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and the use of “I” and “me” in compound constructions.

I also spent time explaining what passive voice, but I’ve already talked about that in a previous post.

Dangling modifier

Here’s an example of a dangling modifier: Running down the street, the bus passed me by.

When readers encounter that sentence, they know that someone or something is running, but they don’t yet know who or what. The normal thing to do is find the first noun, which in this case is “bus.” Readers dismiss that as nonsense and go on to “me.” That’s obviously better than “bus,” but it’s in the objective case (ie, “me” instead of “I”), so it’s awkward to cast it as the runner. You would never say “me was running.” That makes “running down the street” a dangling modifier.

Ideally, you want the subject of the modifier and the subject of the sentence to be the same. That would give you “Running down the street, I saw the bus sail past” or something similar.

When I pointed this out to students, they often said, “But you know what I mean.” True, I do. But I was the one who had to do the work of unraveling the sentence. That should have been the writer’s task. If readers are engrossed in a story, they’re usually willing to do a little extra work if the writer stumbles. But do you want your readers spending their energy on that rather than suffering along with your characters or thrilling to your plot?

Lie vs. lay

To “lie” is to recline. To “lay” is to put. “Lay” is a transitive verb. As in the vulgar use, it takes an object. So you lie down on the couch, but you lay your book down beside you.

The real confusion with “lie” and “lay” comes when you move out of present tense. Frankly, at that point, I always stop and look things up, just to be sure. According to dictionary.com, the past tense of “lie” is “lay,” and already my head hurts. The past tense of “lay” is “laid.”

All that being said, this is a battle I’m going to lose. A living language changes as people use it, and “lay” seems to be in the process of becoming universally accepted to mean “lie down.” I don’t care. You can pry “lie” out of my cold dead hands. Heck, I trained my aerobics instructor to say “Lie down on your mats.”

I vs. me in compound constructions

With one exception, native speakers of English usually have no trouble choosing between “I” and “me.” The exception comes when there are two or more receivers of an action and one of them is me. That seems to be hard to manage.

Here’s an example. “Mary spilled her guts to John and I/me.” What would you choose?

The answer should be “me.” You can test that by taking John out of the picture. You would never say “Mary spilled her guts to I.”

I think this comes from the way little kids are taught to say “Mary and I spilled the water” rather than “Mary and me spilled the water.” In this case, “I” is obviously correct. Again, you can test by taking the other person out of the sentence.

Do your readers a favor and fix these things in your work. Readers probably won’t consciously notice why the story reads more easily, but they’ll sense it anyway.


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Twelve-year-old Cade discovers he’s a Finder, one able to sense the presence of precious heart stones, at the moment his mother is arrested for having the same ability. While trying to avoid contact with the potentially addictive stones, Cade sets out to rescue her, aided (maybe?) by a girl who wants Cade to help her steal every heart stone he can find.

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2 thoughts on “Tricky grammar: dangling modifiers, lie/lay, I/me

  1. These types of basic grammar and usage cannot be emphasized enough. A few years ago, I created a PPT presentation on dangling modifiers and the stickiness principle for my colleagues. Probably a lost cause, but I keep trying! My preferred example is, “Sitting on the mailbox, Mrs. Johnson saw an eagle.”

    Is grammar still formally taught in schools? Transitive/intransitive, direct and indirect objects, dependent/independent clauses and relative pronouns — does the average high schooler recognize those terms? Does no one diagram sentences any more? she cried in anguish…..

    1. I don’t know what’s taught in schools. If people read, they got most stuff. It’s the subtler stuff like dangling modifiers they have trouble with. But if they want to be professional writers of any kind, they need to take notice.

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