Standing nervously before my college classmates I had tried my best to look cool.  I took in a deep breath before delivering the opening line of my speech. With half a dozen lovely females in the class, I could not stumble. I had to appear confident and suave. I wanted them to see that there was more to this shy Lutheran.

I glanced at the Speech class professor for the nod that showed he was ready.  It was important to have a moment of dramatic silence before speaking. That moment of muteness can be powerful in drawing attention.   Mustering my best Shakespearean voice, I broke the quiet with my pronouncement, “To lay, or not to lay. That is the question.”

Perhaps some clarity is needed at this point. In those years, it was not uncommon to hear braggadocio from the “cool guys” about their sexual conquests. These Don Juans would boast about “getting laid”, which implied that they had sexual intercourse. Or they would tout a particular girl as a “good lay.” As the reader will see in a matter of sentences, I was not one of these unfeeling, objectifying chauvinists.

After my opening sentence, I paused to see how my brilliant sexual innuendo had landed. Some classmates were smiling; I was almost ambushed by the sensual smile of a long blonde haired girl; the one who fit perfectly into a  cool pair of patched bell bottomed pants. Others, in the class, were leaning forward and a few touched pencils to their mouths waiting to hear more. And best of all, the professor tipped his head ever so slightly to the side and showed me a slight smile. He clearly wanted to hear more. The hook was set!

I suspect the class was eager for tales of ribald sexual adventures. Little did they know that in my case there no such stories. Why there weren’t even any misadventures to share. Unknown to all my family and friends was the fact that here I was living during the early 1970s, a curious and silent supporter of the recent sexual revolution and I was a flaming 20 year old virgin!

Instead, I followed the charge of the assignment and delivered a discourse that was supposed to objectively address opposing sides of a controversial subject. Fully aware of the need to grab the attention of an audience I was particularly pleased with my catchy opening line. From there I went on to present arguments for and against the building, or laying, of the proposed 800 mile Trans Alaska pipeline from the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska.

The reason to share this story is that I recently received an email from my on-line Writer’s Digest newsletter that included a writer’s tip on the proper usage of “lay” and “laid.”

Clearly I had correctly used the word “lay” on that memorable spring day when I delivered my pipeline speech. I had pirated and altered the famous line delivered in Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy, Hamlet. And certainly anyone labeled a bard would get it right.

But there have been many times since then that I have gnashed my teeth and grabbed fistfuls of my hair wondering if I should insert lie, lay, lain or layed, in a piece of creative writing.

When I was a naturalist, one of the volunteers, Dorothy, would gently correct me if I had used the wrong word during one of my class programs. Dorothy was a retired English teacher and she laid out the rules very clearly. “Lay is the past tense of lie in the present tense. Laid is the past tense of lay in the present tense.” And then, noting my blank expression and being  a good teacher, she would always give me the same example.

“You need to lie down today, yesterday you lay down, in the past you have lain down. Today you lay the hammer on the bench, yesterday you laid the hammer on the bench. In the past you have laid the hammer on the bench.

Confusing isn’t it? The only way to really get it right is to memorize it. But I find memorizing grammatical rules boring beyond boring. So beneath my computer screen I keep a little handwritten scrap of paper with scribbled rules that I often refer to.

And for you nosey, lecherous readers. . .my bold opening question delivered on that lovely spring day in my speech class did bag me a B+.  The rest of the class, particularly the bevy of lovely young ladies continued the polite relationship of smiles-only.


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