The Grammarphobia Blog

Lay waste to Carthage?

Q: I never see “lay waste” used correctly, as in “lay Carthage waste.” Instead I see “lay waste to Carthage.” Though a voice crying in the wilderness, perhaps I could enlist your help in staying this devastation of the language?

A: Traditionally, as you point out, “lay” is a transitive verb that takes a direct object in the idiom “lay waste.” So the traditional usage would be “Rome laid waste Carthage” or “Rome laid Carthage waste.”

In those examples, “Rome” is the subject, “laid” is a transitive verb, “waste” is an adjective, and “Carthage” is the direct object of the verb. It’s similar to saying “She laid bare her problems.”

However, living languages evolve, especially their idioms, which don’t necessarily follow traditional rules.

In the early 20th century, some English speakers began thinking of “waste” in that idiom as a noun and the direct object of “lay.” Hence the usage that bugs you: “Rome laid waste to Carthage.”

As Bryan A. Garner notes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the new usage caught on and was quite popular by the second half of the 20th century:

“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.”

(We’d add that the usual idiomatic sense of the phrase, “devastate” or “destroy,” isn’t quite the same as the literal meaning of “lay waste”—“bring to a worthless or useless condition.”)

In his entry for “lay waste,” Garner says a 2003 study “showed that in modern print sources, the version with the superfluous to outnumbers the one without it by a 3-to-1 ratio,” but he adds that a more extensive 2008 survey “showed that the traditional transitive version had retained the lead by a 2-to-1 radio.”

Our own surveys of the 12 databases in Brigham Young University’s English corpora suggest that the new usage may now be more popular than the old one.

However, the idiom “lay waste” is clearly a work in progress, and several standard dictionaries accept both the old and new versions in formal as well as informal English.

The online ​Oxford Dictionaries, for example, has an entry for “lay waste to” or “lay something (to) waste,” with this definition: “To completely destroy.”

One of the dictionary’s examples refers to a proposal “that Athenians lay waste to their own lands to deny the Spartan army resources and the opportunity to do so itself.”

Merriam Webster online has an entry for “lay waste to,” which it defines as “to cause very bad damage to (something).” M-W has this example: “The fire laid waste to the land.”

The online Macmillan Dictionary has an entry for the phrase “lay something waste/lay waste to something,” which it defines as “to cause very serious damage to a place, especially in a war.”

Cambridge Dictionary online has an entry that includes “lay sth (to) waste” as well as “lay waste to sth,” which it defines as “to completely destroy something.” (Here “sth” is short for “something.”)

Which form of the idiom should English speakers use today? With the usage in flux, we’d suggest going with the one that seems more natural to them. Our guess, though, is that the new usage is here to stay, and that no amount of crying in the wilderness, the blogosphere, or the halls of ivy will stop it. In fact, the idiom evolved once before.

When the expression “lay waste” showed up in Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “to devastate, ravage (land, buildings).”

The first example in the OED is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “For they haue deuoured Iacob, and layed waiste his dwellinge place.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the usage you’re writing about is from the April 25, 1908, issue of an aptly named magazine, the Waste Trade Journal:

“A number of the dealers who were last week reported to have been entirely disabled from the transaction of business by the disastrous fire which laid waste to the entire center section of Chelsea, Mass., have already established themselves in temporary quarters, and it is expected that their operations within a short time will regain their former extent.”

And here’s a recent example from the Feb. 14, 2017, issue of the New York Times: “Fourteen years of war snuffed out 200,000 lives and laid waste to Liberia, producing generals who led ritual sacrifices of children before going into battle, naked except for shoes and a gun.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation
And check out our books about the English language.