Today’s letter is devoted to two tricky grammar and punctuation issues: commas between adjectives, and the difference between lie and lay (and, trickier still, the various tenses of those verbs). If you have tricky grammar and punctuation questions for future episodes of The Habit Weekly, send them along.

Commas Between Adjectives
Somewhere along the line, you probably heard that you were supposed to put a comma between adjectives that modify the same noun, as in the friendly, slobbery dog or the broad, grassy plain. But you wouldn’t insert commas if you were to write about an old Dutch sailing vessel. What is the difference?

The actual rule is that you should insert commas between coordinate adjectives modifying the same noun. I’m sorry to report that I don’t have a great definition of “coordinate adjectives.” The best definition I’ve found is that coordinate adjectives modify the same noun independently and are of roughly equal importance. But both “independently” and “equal importance” are pretty subjective. So you’re better off running two tests to determine whether adjectives are coordinate:

  • Test #1: If you reorder the adjectives and the phrase still makes sense, the adjectives are coordinate. You can switch slobbery, friendly dog for friendly, slobbery dog, so friendly and slobbery are coordinate adjectives; therefore, they should be separated by a comma. By contrast, if you were to rearrange old Dutch sailing vessel to sailing Dutch old vessel, you would come across as somebody who doesn’t know English very well. Old, Dutch, and sailing are not coordinate, so they should not be separated by commas even though they all modify the noun vessel.
  • Test #2: If it makes sense to insert the word and between two adjectives modifying the same noun, the adjectives are coordinate. The phrase broad and grassy plain makes sense, so a comma would be appropriate there (as long as you don’t also use and). On the other hand, an old and Dutch and sailing vessel doesn’t make sense. So neither would commas.

Note that you should probably run both of the above tests when you have tag-team adjectives. Test #1 would be inconclusive for broad, grassy plain. When you reverse the adjectives, grassy, broad plain sounds a little odd…but is it odd enough to suggest that the adjectives aren’t coordinate? It may be hard to say. But inserting and in Test #2 makes it obvious that the adjectives are indeed coordinate. And in the case of the friendly, slobbery dog, Test #2 is less conclusive than Test #1. But old Dutch sailing vessel fails both tests pretty spectacularly. 

Non-coordinate adjectives are called cumulative adjectives. Cumulative adjectives are ordered according to a complex hierarchy that you probably couldn’t explain, but that you intuitively understand if you are a native speaker of English. We all know to say my big fat Greek wedding, not Greek big fat my wedding. I wrote about this subject four years ago, very early in the career of The Habit Weekly. You can read more in that episode.

Two more quick things about adjectives and modifiers. First, many adjectives are modified by adverbs, as in very slobbery dog or unusually aggressive bunny. You never need a comma between an adverb and the adjective it modifies. And second, you never need a comma between an adjective and the noun it modifies.

Lay, Lie, Laid, Lain
It’s easy to get lay and lie mixed up, and it is even easier to get the past forms (3rd principal part) and the perfect forms (4th principal part) mixed up. 

The first thing to sort out is the difference in meaning between lay and lieLay is a transitive verb, which means it always takes a direct object. Any time you use lay, you should be laying somethingLie, on the other hand, is an intransitive verb; it never takes a direct object. You would lay your blanket on the grass, and then you would lie down on the blanket. It would be grammatically incorrect to say that you are going to lay down on the blanket. You could, however, say that you are going to lay your body down on the blanket or that you are going to lay your tired bones on the blanket; body and tired bones are direct objects in those cases (and therefore lie would be incorrect).

It’s not terribly hard to keep lay and lie straight as long as you keep in mind that distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs. Lay takes a direct object, lie doesn’t. But when it comes to the past tense and the various perfect tenses, I have trouble keeping things straight myself.

Here’s a chart of the first, third and fourth principal parts. I’ve skipped the 2nd principal part (the -ing forms) for the sake of space. Also, I have included both senses of the verb to lie: lie1to recline, and lie2to tell an untruth. Take a minute to study this chart:

1st PP
3rd PP
4th PP

Lay is perfectly regular. Stick a –d on the end, adjust the spelling, and you’ve got your third and fourth principal parts, just like walk, walked, have walked, or say, said, have said. Lie2 is even more regular; you don’t even have to adjust the spelling once you’ve added –d.

Every bit of the trouble comes with the irregular verb lie1. The second principal part, that is, the simple past tense, looks exactly like the first principal part of lay. And the fourth principal part, lain—well, I’m not sure where that came from. No wonder people struggle with it. 

To summarize, here’s how these verbs work in their various principal parts:

  • Lay those glasses on the bedside table. 
  • I know I laid those glasses on the bedside table.
  • I have always laid those glasses on the bedside table.
  • Lie on the couch and rest.
  • I lay on that couch yesterday and found it comfortable.
  • I have always lain on that couch for my afternoon naps.
  • Don’t lie to me.
  • You lied to me yesterday.
  • You have lied to me since Day 1.

It’s tricky, I know, but as it turns out, the only tricky conjugation is lie1.
If you can memorize that one, you should be able to keep lay and lie straight.

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