Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: lay waste.

lay waste. The traditional idiom is an unusual one: either “they laid waste the city” or (a variant form) “they laid the city waste.” “Lay” is the verb; “city” is the object; and “waste” is an adjective serving as an objective complement. The structure of “they laid waste the city” is like that of the unobjectionable “they laid bare the problems.” In 1965, an academician polled about 100 college students in New York, only a quarter of whom preferred the traditional phrasing; half preferred the phrasing “laid waste to the city.” In that version, “lay” is the verb; “waste” is a noun serving as a direct object; and a prepositional phrase follows. The phrasing doesn’t make any literal sense. A look at relative frequencies in 2003 showed that in modern print sources, the version with the superfluous “to” outnumbers the one without it by a 3-to-1 ratio. Even Newsweek editors have adopted the preposition: “Old-time carpet-bombing laid waste to great swaths of territory.” John Barry & Evan Thomas, “The Fog of Battle,” Newsweek, 30 Sept. 2002, at 36. It looks as if the new idiom is laying waste the old one — that is, laying waste “to” the old one. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “The journalist is too often an adept at the skillful development of a worthless idea. Out of almost nothing he can make what seems to be something. He knows how to make a ‘story’ when there is really nothing to tell, how to write an editorial every day when there are only four good topics a week. His profession has suffered in general estimation from the vices of its less principled members.” Henry Seidel Canby, Better Writing 38 (1926). ====================
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