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Ask Me: Prepositions

I am a university student (a very mature student), studying Modern Languages and Second Language Education. I find it odd that I feel like I am getting less confident in my language skills the more I study language (in fact, I am feeling self-conscious as I write to you now--I hope this feeling will eventually go away). Anyway, I wonder about using the preposition at instead of in.  Please consider this example:  "We are living at a time when almost anyone can obtain a university degree." I have spoken this way, and heard others do the same, but is it correct?


Ask Me--Lie or Lay?

When I was young, as part of her regular grammar corrections, my mother would say, "People lie, chickens lay eggs." Apparently people regularly lay eggs or the use of "to lie" in the sense of being in a horizontal position has all but disappeared. I almost never hear anything but "lay" when people mean "lie." E.g., "I was laying around yesterday" or "I'm laying on my bed." 

Unfortunately for me, this particular use (misuse) always makes me cringe, even as I try to be open to evolving language. It seems I'm either going to have to adjust or live with visions of humans laying eggs all about.


Ask Me--Origin of "Don't sleep on..."

What's the origin of the suddenly ubiquitous "Don't sleep on. . ." as a swap for "don't underestimate"? It's everywhere in sports the last year or two--Jeff MacGregor, ESPN, via Twitter (@MacGregorESPN)

I had to somewhat sheepishly tell Jeff that I had never enountered the expression. And there went my best excuse for watching so much sports on TV, viz., that at least it gives me a total command of sports announcers' cliches. Checking the various databases, I saw, first, that he was right about the current popularity.


Ask Me--"A" or "An" in Headlines?

After completing a crossword in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, I turned to the page with a review of your new book.. The book review at the top of this page is titled 'A N.J. town fights cancer." Excuse me, but shouldn't it read "An N.J. Town ..."?--Naomi Sussman

It's a great question. Not that the editors necessarily had this in mind, but I think the idea is how you imagine someone reading the headline aloud.


Ask Me--Personal "That"

I wish you'd write something about the common error of using the word "that" instead of "who" when referring to people. For example, "Ben is the one that wrote the article" or "the people that read Ben's article will be enlightened."--W.G. Moss

That kind of bugs me, too, W.G., and has since I started noticing it popping up in my students' writing about six or seven years ago. I wrote about it in an essay called "The Elements of Clunk"--I took it as one example of an odd long-term trend of people wanting to elongate their writing, even if only by one letter.