Is it drank or drunk, lay or lie?

I’m going to be grouchy about grammar today. What I’m seeing lately online and on paper drives me nuts. Now I know most people don’t care, but your editor will nod and smile if you get it right. She’ll say, “Ah, here’s someone who cares about language.”

I’m only going to give two examples today so that you can focus on just these two.

1) The past tense of sink, not the thing in your kitchen but what you do when you’re in deep water weighted down with rocks, is “sank.” More and more, I’m seeing “sunk” as the past tense, as in “The boat sunk to the bottom of the bay.” No! It should be “sank.” “The boat sank to the bottom of the bay.” Sunk is another thing, as in “It would have been tragic if the boat had sunk to the bottom of the bay.” Sink, sank, sunk.

The same rule applies to drink. I drink, I drank yesterday, I’m calling a cab because I have drunk too much to drive. Drink, drank, drunk.

Make sense?

2) Lay and lie. I know a lot of people, including many writers, who just throw up their hands and say “who cares?” Or they really think they have it right, and they don’t. This one is crazy confusing. Whoever invented it must have decided to drink, he drank, and he got drunk. And then he lay down on the nasty sticky floor of the bar and passed out after inventing the lay-lie rules.

To lie down is to recline, spread your body out on a floor, bed, sofa or whatever. If you did it a while ago, you lay down. If your boss asks why you didn’t come to work, you could say you had lain down for a while.

To lay down is to put or place something, as in I lay my laptop computer on the table right now. I know, I know, it’s the same word as the past tense for lie. It gets even crazier. The past tense for lay is “laid,” as in “I laid my laptop on the table.” And the past participle as in “I had laid it on the table, but now it’s not there,” is the same word.

And, of course, to lie is also to tell a fib. What a confusing language.

As I said, they drank and got drunk before they made up the rules.

You can find websites that will check your grammar for you, and most word processing programs will do some grammar checking for you, but I urge you not to trust them. A writer should know how to use his tools. Learn the rules and follow them—even if you’re the only one who knows the difference.

Some sources to check: by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. In fact, why not buy the book?