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A Word, Please: There are ways to identify great language users

Before the age of social media, I had a theory that certain words used certain ways were hallmarks of the grammar-savvy.

I would hear “I have drunk” or “I couldn’t care less” or “there are a lot” and assume I was listening to a highly educated user of the English language.

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With the explosion of social media, a lot of my presumptions have been confirmed. Social media posts provide a trove of data showing patterns among editors and other grammar-savvy types.

Here are some of the terms that separate the great users of language from all the rest.

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“Lay” as the past tense of “lie.” It’s very rare to hear someone say, “Last night, I just lay in bed unable to sleep.” Even people who know “lay” and “lie” often deliberately choose “laid” here because it sounds less stuffy.

But when they’re willing to sound stuffy, folks who use “lay” this way tell you a lot about their grammar knowledge. “Lay” is two things. It’s a past tense of “lie” and it’s a separate word — a transitive verb. You “lie” when you recline. You lay something — say, a book — on a table because “lay” requires a direct object (that’s what we mean by transitive).

The past tense of “lay” is “laid.” The past tense of “lie” is “lay.” That’s unfortunate because it’s so confusing. Remember that, if today you lie down, yesterday you lay down. Though “laid” is OK here, too.

“Drunk” as a past participle. Today, I drink. Yesterday, I drank. In the past, I have … what? Past participles cause a lot of mistakes in English. Though it’s OK to use “drank” after “have,” editors and careful writers opt for “I have drunk.”

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That’s because, unlike most people who guess at which past participle to use, grammar-savvy folks know how to look them up. Dictionaries list simple past tense, past participle and progressive participle forms, in that order, immediately after the entry word.

So you might see “drink: drank, drunk, drinking.” That tells you the simple past is “drank” and the past participle is “drunk.” If you see an “or” in there, it means you have two options.

In fact, Merriam-Webster allows “drunk” or “drank” for the past participle. But they list “drunk” first — a hint that it’s preferred.

“Swum” as a past participle. Same deal. Saying “I have swum every day this summer” shows you know your past participles, though “have swam” is OK, too.

“There are” before “a lot.” It’s acceptable to say, “There’s a lot of cars parked outside.” But careful speakers often prefer “There are a lot.” Technically, you need a plural like verb “are” to match a plural noun like “cars.”

“There’s” is singular — a contraction of “there” and the singular “is.” That’s why “There’s cars outside” sounds inferior to “There are cars outside.” Inserting “a lot” changes the equation a bit. Compare “There’s a lot of cars” to “There’s cars” and you see how “a lot” gives the noun a singular feel. But you can use “there’s” before a plural if you prefer.

Sneak peek. To type “sneak peak” is human. To catch your error and change it to “peek” is divine. Our pattern-seeking brains make it all too easy to repeat the “eak” part after typing “sneak.” Anyone can make that mistake. But careful writers double-check every “sneak peek.”

Couldn’t care less. It’s official: The leading language experts agree that “could care less” is now an idiomatically acceptable alternative to “couldn’t care less.” But to the logical mind, it’s an outrage. People who value precision in language apply the principle that if you can’t care less, you’re at the lowest possible level of caring.

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But if you can care less, you care a little. So if you don’t care, go ahead and use “I could care less.” But I, for one, will continue to negate that “could.”

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