NaBloPoMo Day 8: Teaching an Old Dog Correct Grammar

Rusty and me--not that he minds when I tell him to "lay down."

This morning I drove my mother’s dog, Rusty, to the vet. We had to take him to the MedVet emergency clinic on Halloween morning because he was having difficulty walking. They diagnosed possibly a herniated disc, gave him a shot of steroids and some pain medication, and sent him home for follow-up this week. He was doing okay for the first few days, but about Saturday Rusty started limping. To me, it looked different from the strange, did-he-have-a-stroke stumbling walk of last week. I had a hell of a time getting him into the car. He didn’t want to jump in, and he didn’t want me to lift him, either.

The truth is, Rusty is one of those rare dogs who hates a car ride. He’s always been that way, and we don’t know if it’s motion sickness or if, after over 12 years, he still thinks maybe we’re taking him back to the pound. He always rides in the backseat with his head drooping, often sitting up instead of relaxing and getting comfortable.

Today was no exception, and all the more pitiful because he was obviously in pain. He would not, though, settle down on the seat, or on my fleece jacket, which I’d left in the car. “Lay down, Rusty!” I pleaded.

Now, I know the correct usage of “lay” and “lie.” I have no idea why I’m incapable of being grammatically correct when I tell a dog to chill out. “Rusty, lay down.” I say it in a musical voice, the syllables flowing up and down, as though singing my plea. Even when I say it with more insistence (“Go on, lay down!” “Lay down now!”), it sounds gentler than “Lie down!” Grandma Martha used to say “Lie down!” to dogs in a tone of voice that made me want to fall to the floor myself. I don’t think the results would have been as effective if she’d cooed, “Lay down…”

Being a poet and aware of the impact of vowel sounds, I do wonder if I subconsciously choose “lay,” even though I know it’s incorrect, because the long “a” sound isn’t as harsh as the long “i” in “lie.” “Lay” is a smoothing hand; “lie” is pointing finger. “Lie” rhymes with “die,” a word that also has a softer synonym in the phrase “passed away.” There’s that long “a” sound again.

I often try to correct my use of “lay” when commanding a dog, partly so anyone within earshot doesn’t think I’m a grammatical basket case. Really, though, is it that important? Especially with a dog 12-1/2 years old with a herniated disk and possibly now a pinched nerve in his neck? Okay, I’ll reform with younger dogs who deserve and need the directness of the harder-sounding “Lie down!” With my broken-down sweetheart Rusty, though, I’ll continue to invite him to “lay down” next to me so I can scratch his back.

NUDGE: Is there a word you constantly misuse, even though you know what the correct usage really is? Is the error deliberate—for comic effect, to sound more informal, to raise the ire of the grammar police—or is it a verbal tick such as my use of “lay” with dogs?

Explore your misuse of the word. If you can’t come up with anything more than saying “ain’t” once in awhile, that’s fine. Simply write about why you say it and any discomfort associated with your usage: You catch yourself in your error and feel embarrassed, or you just can’t bring yourself to say “there isn’t any way” instead of “ain’t no way.”

Here are some examples that come to mind: My father always said “palettes” when he meant “polyps,” which often caused all kinds of confusion, but he simply wasn’t able to correct himself. Eventually we got tired of pointing it out.

Some people say “prostrate” when they mean “prostate,” or vice versa. However, others deliberately misuse the words to be funny.

After one of the Presidential debates in which George W. Bush used the term “the Internets,” many, especially bloggers, continued to employ “the Internets” as a stroke of sarcasm.

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