Lie, Lay, Align

I got to liking Pilates because it was easy — at first, anyway. You did most of the exercises lying down, for starters, and the first Pilates teacher at the gym around the corner gave us a breather between each set — almost like a little nap.

How bad could it be?

That was maybe 10 years ago. Since then, whether by luck or by design, the gym’s Pilates instructors and classes have gotten steadily more challenging. No more little naps.

But I’ve gotten stronger, which is gratifying.

Just one problem: It’s not enough to just do the exercises any old way. Form matters: head lifted, shoulders down, abs in and up, thighs together, etc. It’s a lot to focus on all at once — almost as bad as golf, where you’re supposed to keep your head down, your elbow straight, your feet firmly planted, and somewhere in there you’re supposed to swing the ridiculously long implement and hit the little ball with it.

It takes concentration. And this is where my early education gets in the way, especially lately.

“Now lay down one vertebrae at a time,” our new Saturday Pilates instructor will say, and my brain will entirely let go of body alignment and go into a sort of grammatical fugue state.

Summoned from freshman year in high school, my inner Latin student starts declining vertebra-vertebrae-vertebrae-vertebram-vertebra while my inner English grammarian singsongs Today I lie. Yesterday I lay. Many times I have lain.


When’s the last time you heard an actual person use the word lain? Have you ever?

Meanwhile, whoever’s in charge up there dithers about where to start: with “you can lay eggs but you can’t lay down” because present-tense lay is a transitive verb that requires a direct object, so you have to lie down?

Or with “there is no such thing as one vertebrae” because vertebrae is plural, so you should lie down one vertebra at a time?

OK, in Latin, vertebrae could also be a genitive or dative singular, but we don’t have those cases in English.

We stick with the nominative, so it’s either vertebra, singular, or vertebrae, plural.

It’s not that I haven’t noticed that practically nobody cares about these distinctions anymore. One more generation of texting and instant messaging and online chat, and who’ll know the difference?

Spelling and grammar will probably seem as exiguous as the frilly white paper cuffs that restaurants put on lamb chops.


(Recently, BTW, poring over a much-autographed high school yearbook from 1967, I was thunderstruck by what I at first took to be the first use of LOL. Wow, I thought: LOL way back in 1967? But it was apparently a popular sign-off at the time, meaning “Lots of Love.”)

Anyway, it’s a conundrum. I can imagine the look on the face of the young Pilates instructor if I approached her after class to explicate the differences between lie and lay and vertebra and vertebrae.

Come to think of it, a few years ago, with another instructor, one of my fellow exercisers did exactly that in re: vertebra/vertebrae. But she had an excuse.

She said medical school had made it impossible for her to cope with vertebra/vertebrae misuse.

After that, the instructor started saying “one bone at a time.”

Everybody wins.

There are two issues here. Is grammar really on its way to becoming entirely irrelevant? Will there come a time when nobody flinches at “between you and I”?

Even if it eventually does, it doesn’t solve my problem now. I tell myself I ought to be able to adjust to “one vertebrae at a time.”

After all, I know exactly what she means. Why should I care if she’s not quite saying it?

But try telling that to the inner grammarian and the inner Latin student.

And don’t forget the inner copyeditor, who edits signs and diner menus. They care. They will always care. And they will reliably make a lot of noise in my head whenever anybody gets it wrong.

And that takes up bandwidth that would better be devoted to maintaining proper alignment.

Just the other day, in The New York Times, I read about some studies that found that dieting makes you stupid. To put it more carefully, people who are actively resisting the temptation to eat a cookie, or people who eat it and then have to figure out how they’ll make up for it by not eating something else later, or even people who spend brain power looking up and adding up calories so they won’t eat too much, do worse than non-dieters on tests of higher order mental activity.

You can only think about so many things at a time.

Clearly, the solution is for Pilates teacher-training to add a brief segment on Latin and English for Pilates instructors.

That way, they’ll avoid stirring up my inner grammarian and I can give my full attention to keeping my shoulders down.

Write to Patricia McLaughlin c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106 or