Readers' Representative Journal

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No "holiday closings" box, and lessons on "lay" vs. "lie"

January 23, 2008 |  4:53 pm

What they lacked in size (a small box; a three-letter word) they made up for in meaning. Editors in the California section neglected to tell readers what offices were closed on Monday, the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.; and a headline used "lay" instead of "lie."

As Robert Lewandoski of Fullerton wrote in an e-mail Jan. 21, "Where is the little box in today's paper mentioning that today is a holiday and that there will be no mail service, government offices being closed, schools closed, etc.?" Ten other readers complained as well.

There's a simple but unfortunate answer: Two editors each thought that the other was doing it, and it wasn't placed at all.

The same day, four readers asked the question Madison Bradfield-Davis of Los Angeles posed in a phone call to the readers' representative office. She and two friends, all high school journalism students, left this message of concern regarding news coverage of the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "There's no story or article -- but there's a great impact on our culture."

In fact, on Jan. 21, the print version of California ran photos and information on the celebration that the California African American Museum held a day before the official holiday; there also was a map of Monday's Kingdom Day Parade route. (The display feature did not appear online that day; here's a gallery of the images, and a PDF of the print page Download MLK.pdf). Several articles before Jan. 21 referred to the reason for the holiday -- including one Jan. 19 article that focused on King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." But as with most commemorative holidays, the greatest coverage appeared the next day, reporting how Los Angeles residents marked the day.

On another topic, grammarians weighed in on a headline in the Opinion section on Jan. 17 that said, "As he lays dying: Is the mysticism rooted in Java keeping Suharto alive?"

Some two dozen e-mails and calls came in starting early that day. A note to the readers' representative office from Eric Wilson of Santa Monica said: "I see that I can contact you if 'we have made an error.'  Well, yes, you have made an error.  A whopper.  I know this headline is a reference to the Faulkner novel 'As I Lay Dying.' But that is past tense, and your headline is supposedly present tense.  It should be 'As he lies dying.' I cannot understand why Times writers cannot master the difference between the intransitive verb 'lie' and the transitive verb 'lay.'  Perhaps you could offer special classes in this topic for your journalists."

Others offered their own lessons. Key Lawson of Hermosa Beach put it this way: "I hope you have already been deluged with similar complaints. Was he laying eggs?  Was he laying silverware out for his last supper? Terrible."

The Times' stylebook gives its own lecture: "The action word is lay. It takes a direct object. Laid is its past tense and its past participle. Its present participle is laying. Lie indicates a state of reclining along a horizontal plane. It does not take a direct object. Its past tense is lay. Its past participle is lain. Its present participle is lying. When lie means to make an untrue statement, the verb forms are lie, lied, lying. Some examples: I will lay the papers on the desk. The police have laid the blame on me. I am laying the papers on the desk. He lies on the beach all day. He lay on the beach all day. He has lain on the beach all day. He is lying on the beach."

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