Comments on the Word ‘Literally’

“Literally” is a useful word that is being destroyed by the boobs in society that have never read a book.

Some argue that the transition 1000 years ago of the meanings of “very” (from ‘true’ to ‘extremely’) and “really” (from ‘real’ to ‘extremely’) justifies throwing up your hands at “literally”.  I think this is a defeatist attitude.  We have a rich and precise language that is under assault from texting, ghetto, immigrants, slang, Alanis Morrisette, and hillbillies, but we haven’t lost the battle by any means.

Go to any serious text book or presentation and the rules of grammar apply.  This is where Proper English is preserved.  Go out in the streets and it’s a free-for-all.  To say one version is as good as the other is ridiculous.  Proper English is a rich way to express complex ideas asymmetrically (without getting feedback and making in-course corrections).  Street English is a way to burp out simple ideas, and interact and correct as you go.  Slang is sometimes a verbal fashion statement (look at the cool words I know!) or just plain simplification and shortening.

If the incorrect use of “literally” bothers you, good for you!, you can help protect our language, and chances are, you’ve probably read a book in your life.  Just tell the people that “literally” is the opposite of “figuratively” and means the words are to be taken at face value.  Or if they say “I was literally bored to death”, ask if they mean “completely bored to death”, because they still appear to be alive.  Or if they say it was “literally raining cats and dogs outside” ask them what kinds of dogs they were.  Or if they say they were so mad they “literally had a stroke”, ask them if they meant “figuratively had a stroke”, or how long were they in the hospital?

And be prepared for the dictionary issue.  Some people will argue that “the dictionary says ‘literally’ can be used in place of “really really”.  But some dictionaries are descriptive, meaning they include a definition for however society uses a word — from comic books, songs, blogs, or movies.  The prescriptive dictionaries focus on proper English, the English you need when writing something for smart people and critical thinkers.

Now this kind of comment usually draws replies about how I missed a comma or misspelled something.  Don’t bother.  I didn’t say I was perfect.  I do try to preserve proper English.  That’s the point.  That doesn’t mean I claim to have perfect English, though I do try.

Finally, it might be asked, “do we really need Proper English anymore?”  Can’t everything be Googled? … Well, it sure would be nice if user manuals were readable and not in some choppy awkward Chinese-English.  I’d hate for nuclear plant instructions to be written in the gibberish of texting.  Try to write laws in Street English — impossible.  And what about medicine?  I’d prefer that anyone treating me knows what they are doing, and frankly, if someone can’t speak Proper English, I have a hard time taking them seriously.  It doesn’t mean they have to use it all the time, but they need to know how to speak properly, or I’ve got to wonder if they have ever read a book.

2 Responses to “Comments on the Word ‘Literally’”

  1. marc says:

    so who is it that decides “really” is an intensifier, but “literally” is not?
    is there a manual of correct english, different from a dictionary, that i’m not aware of?
    and if so, why does this usage manual seem so incredibly arbitrary in terms of what modern usages are okay (e.g., dumb for stupid) and which are not (literally)?

  2. Neville says:

    For the most part, people that have at least read a few books, or have looked the word up, or have gone to college should decide. It doesn’t have to be all or even any of those thing, but they help.

    The trouble is, these words are often simply misunderstood by people in conversation and then used in that incorrect way from then on, unless corrected. And in fact, if they took the time to go look up the word in the first place, or even think about it critically, they’d be on the other side of the argument. Just because they misunderstood something doesn’t make them right.

    And like in most areas, the experts pretty much agree on most things. Go poll english teachers and writers.

    Some dictionaries are prescriptive and some are descriptive. The precriptive ones try hard to stick to the rules, etymology and what makes sense; and the descriptive ones just sort of throw in the towel and say “whatever, I saw it in People magazine, so I’m including it”. My point was that if the Dictionary of Slang says “literally” means “really really”, it proves nothing. Merriam Webster seems fairly lax, too. The whole point is that what goes in a dictionary is a political and philosophical decision, and the dictionaries are all different. Some are sticklers and some are sloppy.

    “Their”, “there”, and “they’re” are constantly used incorrectly. Does that make it right?

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