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Some more of me pedantry

February 19, 2014

 Regular followers of this blog will know that I’ve already complained on various occasions about people mixing up lie and lay, and who and whom, and sank and sunk. Well, I’ve just been reading Amy Sackville’s novel Orkney, which seems to set out to achieve a grand slam of these confusions. On page 2 we find: “…we’ll seek out the softest snowy sands of the tropics, and you can lay out upon them…” Lay what out upon them? That should of course be “lie out upon them”. The word lay is either a transitive verb meaning to put something down flat, or it is the past tense of lie – neither of which could apply here.

On p. 46: “Such depths of subterfuge I sunk to” – no! That should be sank. Simple past. Sunk is the past participle, as in I have sunk. Confusions between the past tense and the past participle in these mutation verbs are quite common, of course; other frequently confused pairs are swam/swum, sang/sung, drank/drunk and, as Amy Sackville demonstrates later in the book, rang/rung.

Then on p. 58 we come across this: “…the maitre d’, whom I have never believed is French…” The way to test if who or whom is right in such cases is to turn the sentence around and see if he or him would be correct. “I have never believed him is French”? Of course not. Therefore it should be who, not whom.

There is indeed a construction, the so-called accusative infinitive form, where whom would be correct in a case like this – “whom I have never believed to be French” (because “I have never believed him to be French” would be correct), and that is probably the cause of the confusion.

I know that these are minor matters. But the narrator of the story is supposed to be a professor of English literature, so one would expect him to get these things right. And it’s surprising that a writer as sensitive to words as Amy Sackville should make such slips. Moreover, shouldn’t her editor at Granta – whom Sackville singles out for thanks in her acknowledgements – have picked up on them?

By the way, my review of Orkney appears in the Independent on Sunday on 23rd February.

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2 Comments
  1. tim permalink

    Brandon, it is interesting to look at this blog.

    The one that gets me in this respect is the confusion between ‘hanged’ and ‘hung’. Is a man to be hanged in the morning, or hung in the morning? It should be clear to all who’ve read Boswell’s Johnson that ‘hanged’ is the correct usage. Equally, despite the grief that may confuse the speaker, to say, ‘they hung my brother’ might make a pedant suggest ‘actually, I think you might mean ‘hanged’ your brother.

    By the way, I’m only writing this to you because I believe we might have met at Wadham some time ago, at an English studies jamboree when John Bamborough was still alive.

    • Hi Tim – it’s certainly possible we met at Wadham (though I must admit I don’t remember the English Studies jamboree).

      ‘Hanged’ and ‘hung’ is an interesting one. Of course the normal past tens and past participle of ‘hang’ is ‘hung’ – but when someone is hung to death, as a punishment, then the approved form is ‘hanged’. But there’s a refinement on this: in the punishment of being hung drawn and quartered, the victim was cut down from the scaffold before they died, so that they could be drawn (disembowelled) while still alive; so in that case ‘hung’ rather than ‘hanged’ is used.

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