Should Sleeping Dogs Lie or Lay, and Other Grammar Puzzlers

Grammar's burning questions confronted.

In the adage “let sleeping does lie,”  is “lie” correct, or should it be “lay?” Do members comprise a committee, or do they compose one? Head-scratchers like these come up often, and each time they befuddle me anew. But do they continually befuddle me? Or is “continuously” the word I’m looking for?

Thankfully, the answers to such perplexing questions are now but a few keystrokes away. Any time you’re not sure whether you’re using the correct word or phrase,  just type the words that confuse you into a search engine and you’ll turn up more choices for grammar answers than you’ll ever need–and almost as many opinions about what’s right.

Here are a few examples:

Lie or Lay?

You lay or place something, as in: Lay the carpet or lay the book on the table. But you lie on a bed or other flat surface.
Therefore, the following  sentences are incorrect: He is laying on the bed. Why don’t you lie it on the bed? The correct forms are:  He is lying on the bed; why don’t you lay the book on the bed?

Here’s where it gets really confusing: The past tense and past participle of  lay is laid (they laid the groundwork; he had laid the plans), while the past tense of lie is lay and its past participle is lain: He lay on the floor face down; she had lain in bed for hours.

Continuing, Continuous or Continual?

Sorry, these words are not interchangeable.

Continual implies recurrence at regular or frequent intervals–for example, playing baseball requires continual practice. Continual means duration over a long period of time, but with intervals of interruptions.  A corporation evaluates the effectiveness of its products and implements change on a continual basis.

Continuous means extending uninterruptedly in time: For example: a continuous rain fell in Seattle for two days. Continuous is duration that continues over a period of time, but without intervals of interruption. For example:  The plan called for continuous improvement.  The electric fan emitted a continuous whirring sound.

In some cases, however, continuous can be interchangeable with continuing. If we look at them both as adjectives, continuous means unbroken and continuing usually means from a given point onward. Both can describe time or distance.  Some examples:

At one time, Route 66 was a continuous length of highway, stretching from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Ever since I’ve known you, your complaining has been continuous. 

Your continuing tardiness will not be tolerated.  (into the future)

As a present participle, continuing is often used in verb forms and as a gerund:  Continuing with this charade would be a grave mistake! (gerund)

The train passed through St. Louis and was continuing to Chicago. (participial phrase)

She was continuing to annoy me.  (past progressive tense)

Comprise or Compose?

Comprise means “is made up of” or “consists of.”  The whole comprises the parts. Compose means “make up” or “”make.”  The parts compose the whole.

Incorrect:  The Beatles was comprised of four musicians.

Correct:  The Beatles was composed of four musicians.

Correct:  The Beatles comprised four musicians.

Correct:  Four musicians composed the Beatles.

Searching for answers.

Once again, in practice it’s not that cut-and-dried. What about the phrases “is comprised of” and “is composed of”? In her excellent essay on this subject, Grammar Girl notes, “One of these (phrases) is allowed among grammarians, and one is not. ‘Is composed of’  is OK. You can say, ‘Our nation is composed of many ethnic groups.’ On the other hand, most grammar sources agree that ‘is comprised of” is an incorrect phrase. Just as you can’t say, ‘The house includes of seven rooms,’ you can’t say, ‘The house is comprised of seven rooms.’ You have to say, ‘The house comprises seven rooms.’”

Even this rule may be changing, however. Grammar Girl cites a survey by the  American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and StyleThe survey reports  that in 1965, 54 percent of the usage panel disapproved of the phrase “is comprised of,” whereas in 2005, 65 percent approved of it, and only 35 percent disapproved. This traditional distinction may be destined to fall by the wayside.

Confusing? Of course! So don’t frustrate yourself with such arcane rules. When it comes to getting your words shipshape, just hire an editor and let an expert decide.


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Filed under Behind the Words, Editing Tips

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