Yes! You Too Can Write Without Reading

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Picture yourself laying in bed with your TV setup under the covers, feeling good about how Anthony Fauci finally retired after they had almost broke up our health freedom . . .

What do you think of that sentence, so far? If you think there’s something wrong with it, you know more than the class of people who are paid to get words right.

Staff working in the verb department are clearly overpaid. Here’s Fox News, in comments written by a former “aide” to Mitt Romney, former “national spokesman” for Jeb Bush, former “communications director” for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and current vice president of “a digital marketing firm,” who is marketing the claim that Democrats “made their bed, and they needed to lay in it.” I’m reluctant to believe that the author is entirely responsible for his words. Probably his teachers made the bed that the rest of us now have to lay in — the bed being total ignorance of the way verbs work. There is, believe it or not, a difference between “lay,” as in “lay it on the table,” and “lie,” as in “lie in bed.” This is the way it goes:

I lay it on the table now, I laid it on the table yesterday, I have laid it on the table.
I lie in bed now, I lay in bed yesterday, I have lain in bed oh so many times.

Tricky, tricky! No one could remember stuff like this. Especially if he never heard of it.

Fox News online has long been remarkable for its total lack of proofreading. But occasionally it gets a verb right. A Fox report on the Idaho murders said: “Justin Williams, a 34-year-old WSU employee who lives in an adjacent building, told Fox News Digital he had occasionally seen [accused murderer Bryan] Kohberger in the neighborhood, typically while Kohberger was retrieving his mail.”

But the Daily Mail was anxious to correct the non-error: “Justin Williams, a 34-year-old Washington State University told Fox News he had occasionally saw Kohberger in the neighborhood while picking up his mail.“ The only time Fox got something right, the Daily Mail had to change it. And no, in the DM article “employee” does not appear after “University.”

Probably his teachers made the bed that the rest of us now have to lay in — the bed being total ignorance of the way verbs work.


The DM does have some great picture stories. This is one from last June 17, entitled “Moment furious Italian motorists drag Extinction Rebellion protestors away to let traffic pass after activists staged a sit-in blockade of one of Rome’s busiest roads.” The nice thing about that headline is that it’s horrendously long but it doesn’t kill your interest in seeing the pictures and the highly amusing video. Would that as much attention had been bestowed on the text: “The protest was eventually broke up with the arrival of local police, the Carabinieri (federal police) and the Digos (special forces) — with the protesters being taken into custody.” Hmm. Maybe another “with” would fix it . . .

I often think of my beloved Aunt Norma, who was born and died in the same house in a small midwestern town, where she was tortured throughout her very long life by her neighbors’ inability to notice what was going on with words, either the words they allegedly learned in school or the words that came up in conversations like this:

Neighbor: I seen you downtown yesterday.
Norma (with kindly instructive intent): Oh, you saw me downtown?
Neighbor (oblivious): Yes, I seen you.

Of course, none of her likable neighbors happened to be writers, editors, or proofreaders for major news media. If they had been, they would have screwed up more.

The Daily Mail provides an example of another error you see in my introductory sentence — this one: “laying in bed with your TV setup under the covers.” So your TV was under your covers? An odd place to hide it. What we have here is a misplaced modifier. The modifier is “under the covers,” and it would make sense if it were in the place where it ought to be, riding herd on the relevant verb: “laying [that is, lying] in bed under the covers, with your TV,” etc. It’s still lame, but at least it doesn’t contain the ludicrous image of a TV packed into a bed. But here’s what the Daily Mail can do with a misplaced modifier:

Palace aides have claimed Meghan [Markle, Harry’s wife] moaned she wasn’t getting paid for royal tours, agreed to the Oprah [Winfrey] interview six months before Megxit and reduced staff to tears with bullying and tantrums in a bombshell new book.

I believe, though this is only a guess, that members of the Duchess’ staff were not weeping sympathetic tears about tantrums and bullying that the Duchess put in a book. I believe they claimed, according to somebody’s bombshell new book (sounds tasty, doesn’t it?), that she laid her tantrums and bullying on them, not on a book.

And hey, please don’t tell me that if I want to understand the sentence I should go ahead and read the rest of the article. I have the strange idea that a writer should permit me to understand every sentence while I’m reading that sentence.

This is what people learn if they ever read anything that’s decently written. Yet we constantly see professional “writers” lacking any clue about common, obvious stuff.


But there’s still that word “setup” in the sentence I created. A lot of English verbs exist in two parts: pick up, lock down, fix up, screw in, take out, set up. Curious, but things often go like that in Germanic languages, and English is one of ‘em. The two parts of the verb may be widely separated, but if they’re not too far apart, we can still recognize them as parts of a verb: “I’ll pick all those groceries up for you.” Often — sometimes with difficulty — the two parts are joined to form an adjective or noun. “That’s a pickup bar” (or, “That’s a pick-up bar”). “The prison was on lockdown.” “That was just a police setup.” But the thing they must not do is transition into a single, hybrid verb: “pickup my groceries, please”; “they lockeddown the prison.” There’s no reason for them to do so; there’s no reason to create two different spellings, and possibly two different pronunciations, for the same freakin’ verb. There is no reason to write, “I’m going to setup the TV, unless you want to set it up yourself.”

This is what people learn if they ever read anything that’s decently written. Yet you can get paid to be a writer, editor, or proofreader without ever reading anything that’s decently written. We constantly see professional “writers” lacking any clue about common, obvious stuff. Examples are so numerous that I may as well go back to my chosen victims (for today), Fox News and the Daily Mail. Here’s the DM, discoursing on the problems of Abbott Laboratories: “Abbott, after nearly three months of being shutdown, addressed the FDA’s investigation into its plant on Wednesday.” I like that one because it inspires me to think of all the other monstrosities that could be substituted for “shutdown”: three months of being laidoff, three months of being shutin, three months of being fedup and pissedoff.

And here’s an interesting one from Fox: “Cameras on the bridge that were setup to stream showed an intense build up at the border, with several CBP [Customs and Border Protection — how’s that for a pompous moniker?] agents lined up behind a barricade and razor wire.” How, in the name of heaven, do you know that it’s “lined up” and “build up,” but you can’t follow the same idea with “set up”? And how do these things go from writer to editor to proofreader to formatter to immediate readers to later readers, a few of whom must be literate, and yet never get cleanedup? Thousands are involved.

They don’t actually read, and they prefer not to write. So they commission others to write for them, but whom are functional illiterates going to choose except slightly more highly functioning illiterates?


Now look back at my wonderful first sentence, and we’ll have some more hot fun. “Fauci retired after they had almost broke up . . .” I assume that anyone who got setup wrong would also be ignorant of broken. But let’s consider “they.” I don’t care how politically correct you are, I assume you can still count to one. Fauci is a lot of things, none of them pleasant, but he isn’t a “they.” Yet we’ve come to the point where . . . well, check the following passage, from WGN9 in Chicago: “Video obtained by CWB Chicago shows the silver sedan traveling south on Jeffrey and not slow[ing!] down as they hit four men.” There was only one car (and as the text later specifies, only one “suspect” in the car), but this special sedan had the miraculous power to multiply into “they.”

“They” is a plague, and we know where it originated — in the laboratories of PC Gender & Co., which are always working three shifts a day. First it exterminated the generic “he.” Then it went to work on “he or she.” After that it turned on the literal “he” and “she,” so that today we can be invited to a talk by Professor Alice Merriweather Snodgrass (or whomever), in which they will tell us about the prehistory of Labrador. And now the sickness is attacking “it.” Even a car is “they.”

Having reached the realm of the political, the dark night in which all cats are gray, and vicious, I can talk about the last phrase in that sentence I constructed, “our health freedom.” Most of today’s politicians are, to use a phrase that is no longer used, probably because it was too useful, functionally illiterate. They can struggle through a paragraph or two of some online article; they can understand most highway signs; they can sometimes pronounce all the words on their teleprompter. But they don’t actually read, and they prefer not to write. So they commission others to write for them, but whom are functional illiterates going to choose except slightly more highly functioning illiterates?

“Health freedom” comes from a speech delivered by the venerable Nancy Pelosi, in which she said that “radical Republicans are charging ahead with their crusade to criminalize health freedom. . . . GOP extremists are even threatening to criminalize contraception, as well as in-vitro fertilization and post-miscarriage care.” The business about criminalization of contraception, in-vitro, and post-miscarriage care (huh?) is just routine abuse. Pelosi thinks she’s being very clever by childish replacements for the word “abortion,” a tactic that merely makes abortion, which she favors, sound bad. It reminds me of the episode in The Philadelphia Story in which Tracy Lord hears the phrase “chaste and virginal” and says, “Stop using those foul words!” But “health freedom”? I think the idea is that if you drop good words into something you say — just drop them in; don’t worry about how they go together — people will think that you’re saying something good and that you are good. Health is a good word. Freedom is a good word. That’s good enough.

Trump does it, DeSantis does it, Biden does it, Schumer does it . . . should I go all the way to mayors and city councilmen and members of school boards, who do it all the time?


Well, maybe not. You can make a word salad if you want, but you shouldn’t throw in a pork chop and a hammer. When have you ever seen the word health used like this? We speak of “health care,” in the sense of “care for one’s health.” On that model, “health freedom” must mean “freedom for one’s health.” So, I guess, my freedom can wander off and do whatever it wants.

Of course, people who are actually able to read, who have some experience deciphering sentences in their native language, know that they don’t have speech freedom or religion freedom. They do, in some unusual locutions, have press freedom, but a press is a thing, not a concept like “speech” or “health.” When I read Dr. Pelosi’s remarks about health freedom — you know, don’t you, that she holds an honorary degree of [sic] public service from Morgan State University? — I thought about John Lennon and Yoko Ono giving press conferences from a bed in which they were, I don’t know, protesting stuff, and calling their activity “bed peace.”

You may have noticed that in my made-up sentence I referred to “our health freedom.” I put that in because this is another trick that illiterates have. They think they can implicate you simply by referring to themselves as “we.” All Republican and Democratic politicians whom I can think of do this. There are undoubtedly some who don’t, and they’re not in my mind because it’s my job — sorry, it’s our job — to convict and not to acquit. But Trump does it, DeSantis does it, Biden does it, Schumer does it, McConnell does it, McCarthy does it . . . should I go all the way to mayors and city councilmen and members of school boards, who do it all the time?

So, I guess, my freedom can wander off and do whatever it wants.


Please try to imagine Washington saying, “As commander of American forces, we have decided . . . ” Imagine Lincoln saying, in his superlative farewell address to the citizens of Springfield (please don’t write to remind me that Lincoln played fast and loose with habeas corpus; I know he did; I’m talking about literacy here, and literature), that “we” had done this, and “we” had felt that. He did not. Only a functionally illiterate person would dream of doing that. What Lincoln said was the following. I give you the whole 153-word address, and no more words are needed to indicate the difference between people who cannot read and write, and people who can:

My friends — No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Note: Followers of Word Watch are perceptive readers and sensitive interpreters of the written language, so I want to prevent any overinterpretation of the Lincoln passage. Lincoln said farewell. Word Watch is not saying farewell. No, not at all.


  1. Not that many years ago, maybe, in fact, not enough, when Barry Obama was president, “lay” was the verb of choice (and we won’t mention how often he said “corpse” when the word was “corps”) even, or especially, when the correct word was “lie.”
    I figured out why, and tried to share my knowledge with everyone: Obama was a Chicago Democrat (and now, of course, he’s a Martha’s Vineyard Democrat — meaning richer). Chicago Democrats perform all kinds of contortions to prevent drawing attention to the word “lie.” Even to not using the term and saying “lay” instead.
    Well, just read, above, how often some phrase or sentence from La Pelosi is, sorry, a lie. OF COURSE they don’t want us to contemplate the concept.

  2. David

    Mr. Cox, you are mistaken. The bad writers don’t write without reading. They read other bad writing, and conclude, “Ah hah. These cliches, disjointedness and incoherence are what I must emulate. It is presented with an air of pompous affectation, which is hip, and I must be hip too.”

  3. The following is a short editorial written by the late Jim Comstock of the West Virginia Hillbilly, Richwood, W.V. , and called to my mind by Dr. Cox’s wonderful essay, above. I read the little paperback book “Best of West Virginia Hillbilly” decades ago, but many of its bits and pieces have stuck with me all these years. Including the following. (The entire book is available at

    The Case Of The Deceased Hog

    Let us consider the problem of the man who lives on Johns Branch, near the city of Welch, in the Free State of McDowell, and see what can be done about that dead hog in the creek near his home. Persons unknown dumped it there, the Sunday paper reports, and it has been “right above my house,” the man says, since sometime prior to June 28.
    It isn’t that the man isn’t trying to do something himself. He is. He went to see the game warden, and he’s been to the county health department. They haven’t done a thing. “The hog is still laying in the stream,” the man declares. Then as a last resort he wrote a complaint to the newspaper and got four neighbors to witness that what he wrote was God’s truth. They’d also like to see the dead hog removed.
    Footnote: I suppose the key to the entire matter of the dead hog lies in the man’s quote, “But the hog is still laying in the stream.”
    The reason he didn’t say “lying in the stream” is because if he could’ve, it wouldn’t’ve.

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