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July 20, 2014


I don't really have a horse in this race (literally) or any particular fervor about the issue, but I do think your argument misses a component.

The concept of "misusing" a word is probably not the most helpful one to focus on. As a copy editor, I tend to frame preferred language in terms of clarity, and I think "literally" has a clarity problem.* True, no one would be confused by "I was literally beside myself" or even "The shit literally hit the fan" (although I find the latter somewhat nonsensical**). But what about these?:

(11) I was literally up at the crack of dawn.
(12) They were literally caught with their pants down.
(13) The widgets are literally a dime a dozen.

There is a range of plausible meanings in these cases. Were you up at dawn, or just much earlier than usual? Was something salacious going on or not? Are the widgets twelve for 10 cents, or some other low price? Certainly, context is important, but if you have to do a lot of work to divert the confusion a word creates, it's probably bad writing and you shouldn't use the word in the first place. And I'm not sure there's another elegant way to precisely express "literally (literally!!!)" in these cases. I think this is what people are getting at when they bemoan the "loss" of this word or of its sense. How great a loss to the language this may be, I can't say, but then, some people work to save endangered species of mosquito.

*This problem is not caused by ensconcing the "figuratively" definition in the OED, of course; it exists anyway, so long as people use the word that way. I.e., there's not much we can do about it except bitch.

**Your sentence (8) strikes me as similarly meaningless, and I do find it and (7) objectionable in a way that (5) and (6) are not, for the reason you grant in the paragraph below them. Count me as a fulminator.

Tammy gets it exactly right.

Your thundering, Tammy, is noted.

And you're right that the issue of clarity is not as well addressed as it might be. On facebook someone pointed out

(14) I was standing in line for literally an hour

which is another good one. But really, I'm not sure that the situation with any of (11)–(14) is so dire.

The argument, as I understand it, is something like this:

The uses of "literally" in (3) and (4) are basically unproblematic in themselves, because no non-figurative interpretation could really be in the offing anyway. But it's objectionable nevertheless, because it contributes to [this phrase is lamentably not in wide use, can you believe that?] a semantic lenition which will make uses of "literally" in other contexts, formerly clear-cut, ambiguous between a recommendation of an actual literal construction of some idiom and a strengthening of the idiom's common figurative meaning—since there are some idioms which aren't as outlandish as horse-eating.

So something like: don't use "literally" this way here because it'll then be harder to tell how you're using it there.

Well, I dunno. Context is king, innit? If we're discussing the apprehension of that notorious gang of flashers that's been terrorizing Local Park, then someone using (12) not meaning to say that they were caught in a state of undress has made a serious miscalculation—as has someone using (12) meaning to say that whoever was caught was partly nude, if we're talking about some kind of price-fixing scandal. If we're talking about a gang of
Clouseau-esque bank robbers, then sure, there may be some difficulty about getting across their attire at the moment of being caught, and the solution may well be just a rewrite: "they were caught when their comically oversized pants fell about their ankles, literally tripping them up."

I suppose I am simply not concerned if some idioms, in some contexts, are unusable without ambiguity or further explanation. I can't just say, in some contexts, "I was standing in line for literally an hour" (in some of course I can, for instance if we both know that I was there for twenty minutes—or for sixty-five). I will have to augment it with "I got there at 11:34 and it was 12:20 by the time I could even see the front", or something.

Figurative idioms and "literally" are not even the only things that confront us with this kind of problem. There are some nice examples in Matt Weiner's "Are all conversational implicatures cancellable?" (tl;dr: no). Consider: you see someone on the subway doing just a really marvelous job of making room for cats, and wonder at his feat of taking up space. You sincerely wish to know whether he could, in fact, take up more room. You could ask him a question to find out:

(15) Could you possibly take up more room?

You are unlikely, however, to be taken as genuinely interested in the matter of this question. This, however, is even worse!

(16) I'm asking sincerely: could you possibly take up more room?

Anyway, I think that both "sincerely" and "literally" are far too good at what they do in cases where they aren't used sincerely and literally to think there's much point in trying to get people not to use them that way. But it's not just an argument from futility; I also think that we'd be more expressively impoverished without those uses than we are with, despite the occasional ambiguities or difficulties thereby engendered. It's fundamentally not a big if instead of saying merely "the widgets are literally a dime a dozen", I have to say "the whosits cost thirty-five cents for ten, and as for the widgets, they're literally a dime a dozen". In which latter case I think the meaning is fairly clear, though I'd be understanding if an editor wanted to rewrite further.

I also think that we'd be more expressively impoverished

I'm with you on everything else, but not this. Words and phrases can change their meanings in all sorts of ways without hindering the overall expressivity of a language; if literally at some point in the future shifts back to being primarily a marker of literalness, other means of intensification will surely wax as it wanes. And I, a person in whose idiolect literally does not function as an intensifier, am nonetheless capable of exaggerating my idioms. (I think practically is my go-to as far as an equivalent lexical intensifier, but I'm probably more likely to just use absurd quantities instead: "I stood in line for eight hundred hours.")

To praise another word oft-disparaged, the word "like" does good work in "I stood in line for like eight hundred hours."

Or even "I stood in line for like an hour."

Ok, fair point about impoverishment; speakers will find a way. (Of course, that cuts both ways!)

I literally pissed myself with joy at seeing this important point made.

Upon reflection, I retract my earlier claim that practically or implausible quantities (or like) are doing the same job as non-literal literally. They are doing something more like marking the presence of exaggeration than intensifying anything.

I do not retract the part about impoverishment though. That part stands (and is an equally good argument against bossy prescriptivists, as you note).

Love to read this post, thank you so much Ben.
Ruth, UK

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