The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?

A mistake students and clients make that surprises me a lot is the failure to know (or research) which words should be put together as a single word—or which supposedly single word is actually two words. Why should this amaze me? Because the dictionary is right here online and/or a simple search engine search can (most often) make the usage clear.

But I guess, to take a step back, what really catches me off guard is that the student or client doesn’t suspect that the two words might be taken as one or that the single word might possibly be broken in two.

Sometimes, yes, I know the answer. We write “online” and not “on line.” We write “ashcan” and not “ash can.” These are completely logical. How about wastepaper? Well, I just wrote it and spellcheck liked it, so I know I can leave it that way. On the other hand, it doesn’t like the word “spellcheck.” So let me go look that up. I do so by first performing a search. Universally, what I come up with for search results are spell check (one spell-check). Okay, I’ll concede. I’ll use two words. But the reader will never know I had the use wrong to begin with.

So the process goes. I look up everything if I’m at all likely to make a mistake. I don’t want to make a mistake. I want to have the right usage. So, my question is why my students and clients don’t look up the word or words. That’s part of the job of being a writer. And if I forget which the correct use is and come across the word again and again? You know what? I look it up every time. Because I can and I don’t even have to pick up a physical dictionary. Though if I think the physical dictionary has an older word I know is proper usage, I’ll pick it up and thumb my way to the page where the word should be.

And here’s the OneLook Dictionary if that will help: . Yes, they spell that as one word: OneLook.

Oh, no, I just stumbled across this in a client’s manuscript: Hood winking… Means, I suppose, a winking hood.

Here are some I’ve seen recently:
bar tender
heart beat
home town
gate keeper
back pack
half way

And much, much more. Please remember, I don’t know all the answers, but I look up everything I’m suspicious of and also if the spell checker flags the word and I think I’m right. Sometimes I am.
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The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie

These are two different verbs. I once actually heard an editor say if she saw an author had confused the verbs, she would reject the manuscript. She had a point. 🙂 I tell students to either find out how the verbs are used or don’t use them. But of course the two are important verbs, and writers want to use them where necessary.

The distinction between the two words is a simple one: Lay, meaning to place something, is a transitive verb—which like all transitive verbs takes an object. Lay the napkins on the table (you wouldn’t say lie the napkins on the table, would you?). Lie, meaning to stretch out, is an intransitive verb (never mind the vocabulary) and never takes an object.

We would “lie down”—no object. We wouldn’t “lay down.”

The misuse of the verb form signals a bit of educational class warfare, explaining the above editor’s prejudice.

Let’s go to the past tense.

I lay (rested) there for quite some time then I remembered I had to lay (place) the napkins on the table.

So the past tense of lie (recline)—lay—is the same word as the present tense of the word for “to place”—lay.

That would seem to be confusing, but only if you don’t have the declension of the verbs in your head.

We don’t say I laid down and I laid there for quite a while. The word “laid” belongs to the verb to lay. (This is one I see a lot.) “I lay down, and I lay there quite a while” would be correct.

I also see “I was laying there,” also incorrect. I was lying there.

Because this is a bit confusing for some, I took this chart from Writer’s Digest (I teach there, so take a class with me at

Lay vs. Lie Chart

Infinitive          Present   Past    Past Participle    Present Participle

to lay (place)     lay(s)      laid        laid                  laying
to lie (rest)       lie(s)       lay          lain                  lying

I ask him to lay the silverware on the table. After he had laid the knives there and after he laid the spoons there, he lays the forks there. Soon, he is laying the plates on the table as well.

Meanwhile I decide to lie down. I lie on the floor. I lay there for quite a while until I had lain for too long. I was lying in the same position all that time.

Of course we do have another verb “to lie,” which means to tell an untruth. The past tense and the past participle of that verb is “lied.”

We’re clear on all this now, right? If not, do as I suggest my students do—if you don’t understand how to use these two quite different verbs, avoid them. Of course the better choice is to learn the difference. Good luck.


You can download my style guide The Naked Writer at Or buy one of my novels in print (or ebooks) there—a middle grade fantasy, Strings; a YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey; and an adult science-fiction fantasy, Question Woman & Howling Sky. Contact me at if you need an edit.

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie