by Henry Lane Hull
Over the years that I have written this item, many times I have referred to my honorary aunt, Ellen Lee, who worked at the Rappahannock Record for 28 years prior to her retirement in 1982. Auntie, as I called her, was a stickler for proper grammar.
She had a phenomenal memory for the rules of usage and custom, which she strictly enforced when reading copy before sending it to the back room to be set in print. She was joined in the front office by Jean Dize, also an avid grammarian, and by Mr. J. E. Currell, the paper’s legendary editor and publisher for over 60 years. Nothing incorrect ever got past that trio.
The office décor itself was a moment frozen in time. Auntie sat at a flattop oak desk, Jean at a massive S-shaped rolltop desk, and Mr. Currell, always wearing his green visor, at another rolltop, but one that was less elaborate than Jean’s.
Auntie’s grammatical rules were simple and understandable. And she could not comprehend why some people had trouble with them. Although she did not write for publication herself, she made certain that those who did adhered to the rules. One of her favorite grammatical twists was distinguishing the difference between “lie” and “lay.” She insisted that the verb, “lie,” pertained only in the intransitive form, as in “I shall ‘lie’ down for a nap,” whereas the verb, “lay,” required an object, as in “I shall ‘lay’ the rug down in the living room.”
When one moved into past tense, the verbs became transmogrified, as in “Yesterday I ‘lay’ down for a nap” or “This morning I ‘laid’ the newspaper on the table.” Proceeding on to the past perfect tense, we have the appearance of “lain,” as in “I had ‘lain’ down for a nap last Tuesday” or “I forgot where I had ‘laid’ the newspaper.” She also stressed the switch in spelling when one moved to the past imperfect tense, as in “I was ‘lying’ in bed this morning.”
In conversation Auntie would refer to grammatical mistakes as being easy to correct, and indeed she set as one of her goals in life to be that corrector. Grammar came naturally to her, and she made a life’s work of passing her knowledge along to others. Another of her fine points was to remind folks that the pronoun, “none,” requires a singular verb, as in, “None of the letters has arrived.” Whereas many have devolved into saying “None have arrived,” Auntie would stick to the rules in every circumstance. She would not have been a supporter of President Theodore Roosevelt’s idea to simplify the English language, nor to engage in phonetic spelling.
Auntie was born and grew up at Mitchell’s Station in Culpeper County, and went off to college in Fredericksburg at Mary Washington. She enjoyed rural living, and soon adapted to life in the Northern Neck after her marriage to Robert M. Lee Jr. in 1942. Robert M. worked for his entire career, aside from Navy service during the Second World War, at the Rappahannock Record where he was the production manager.
For several years in the late 1980s Auntie’s sister, Sarah Hart, also an alumna of Mary Washington College, moved to Kilmarnock from Northern Virginia. Their maiden name was Smoot, and I often have thought that the Smoot gene might be the explanation for the two of them being such proponents of proper grammar, although they were quite different in most other aspects of their personalities.
All of this reminiscing has its origin in last week’s column. In referring to our chickens, I wrote, “None of them has a name”, but in the printed version it appeared as “None of them have a name.” For our readers who are grammatical purists, such as Susan Miller, I only can say, I am innocent. Auntie, Jean, and Mr. Currell would agree.