Shawn L. Bird

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Underlying Grammar January 15, 2013

Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.”

Stephen King On Writing p. 121

I kind of like grammar.  I like the structure of it, and I like analyzing it.  It’s even interesting when I discover I’ve been doing something incorrectly for years.  True, I have an English degree, and I teach English (and frequently I’m the grammar expert on staff), but occasionally there is still a surprise.

Last week, Diana Gabaldon posted a selection of her latest work in progress (My Own Heart’s Blood, book 8 in the Outlander series) which included the sentence, “I saw the seriousness that underlay the laughter…”  I had to study that for a while.

Underlay- a noun- is the padding that goes beneath carpet.  The  form of the word we most frequently use is the adjective  ‘underlying.’  So, whence cometh  ‘that underlay?’  At first glance, I thought it should be ‘that underlaid the laughter,’ but Diana has corrected my grammar before, so I pondered.

Following the lay, laid, laid vs lie, lay, lain model, I realised the verb is to underlie, and therefore the simple past tense must be “Yesterday he underlay the principle with a moral lesson,” and that “Previously he had underlain the principle with moral lesson, until he didn’t any more.”  It still doesn’t sound right, but frequently correct grammar doesn’t.

Good thing someone is keeping an eye on us, and providing an excellent grammatical role model.

More importantly, thank heavens for brilliant editors!

How about you?  Have you had any grammatical epiphanies lately?


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