A Word, Please: An editor’s secret weapon to remembering certain words

I don’t have to look up “lay” and “lie” anymore. At some point in my many (many) years of editing, I committed to memory the difference between these two words and even their past tense forms.

Lay is transitive, meaning it takes a direct object: You lay the blanket on the bed.


Lie is intransitive, meaning it doesn’t take a direct object: You lie on the bed. The past tense of “lay” is “laid” and its past participle is the same. Yesterday, I laid the blanket on the bed. In the past, I have laid the blanket on the bed.

The past tense of “lie” is (unfortunately) “lay” and its past participle is “lain”: Yesterday, I lay on the bed. In the past, I have lain on the bed.


For years I had to look those up to remember the correct past form. But eventually I had them down pat.

However, “lay” and “lie” are the exceptions. Contrary to what some folks assume, editors aren’t people who know all there is to know about language. We just know to look stuff up. Here are a few I have to check every time.

Adverse and averse. I can never seem to remember what’s wrong with “Sam is not adverse to making money.” But it is wrong. It should be averse.

“Many people find themselves confused when faced with the choice between ‘adverse’ and ‘averse,’” Merriam-Webster’s notes.


“While these two adjectives have many similarities, they are not used interchangeably. If you want to describe a negative reaction to something (such as a harmful side effect from medication) or dangerous meteorological conditions (such as a snowstorm), ‘adverse’ is the correct choice…. ‘Averse’ is most commonly followed by the preposition ‘to’ (as in “she is averse to shellfish”), but not in every case; you can, for example, describe someone as “risk averse.”

Emigrate and immigrate. In defense of anyone who, like me, has trouble distinguishing between these two words, there isn’t really a big distinction. To emigrate means to leave the country where you live. To immigrate means to arrive at another country after leaving the country where you live.

Even Merriam’s acknowledges the similarities: “‘Emigrate’ and ‘immigrate’ sound alike, and it is true that both involve leaving one location and entering another. The subtle difference between them lies in point of view: ‘emigrate’ stresses leaving the original place, while ‘immigrate’ focuses on entering the new one.”

Merriam even has a trick for remembering them. “You won't have trouble keeping them straight if you remember that the prefix e- means ‘away,’ as in ‘eject,’ and the prefix im- or in- means ‘into,’ as in ‘inject.’”

For me, the trick will be remembering that trick.

Continual and continuous. I was taught that there’s a clear difference between these words. I even created my own mnemonic.

“Continu-al” was a reference to a pesky uncle named Al who popped in for a lot of unannounced visits but always went home eventually.

“Continuo-us” was a reference to “us” because we can never escape ourselves.


And that’s how I remembered “continual” meant recurring repeatedly and “continuous” meant nonstop and inescapable. That would be great if only it were true.

“Since the mid-19th century, many grammarians have drawn a distinction between ‘continual’ and ‘continuous.’ ‘Continual’ should only mean ‘occurring at regular intervals,’ they insist, whereas ‘continuous’ should be used to mean ‘continuing without interruption.’ This distinction overlooks the fact that ‘continual’ is the older word and was used with both meanings for centuries before ‘continuous’ appeared on the scene,” according to Merriam.

Today, Merriam adds, “Continual is the more likely of the two to mean ‘recurring,’ but it also continues to be used, as it has been since the 14th century, with the meaning “continuing without interruption.”

Aesthetic and esthetic. Here’s another pair that should be easy. Esthetic is merely a variant spelling of aesthetic. There’s no reason to use it at all. Still, when I see “esthetic” I have to look it up because I can never seem to remember.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at