I loathe the imprecise use of words. My head literally explodes at the mere thought of it.
I’m exaggerating, of course, to make a point. But no less so than the growing number of people who use literally when they mean figuratively.
I admit it. I’m a grammar curmudgeon whose knickers twist over matters important only to English teachers, newspaper editors and certain mystery novelists. Confusion over there, their and they’re. Subject-verb disagreement. Incorrect capitalization. Don’t even get me started on Oxford commas. I loathe them, too.
Lest my latest lament go unheeded as yet another screed from a supercilious word nerd, consider the impressions people make with words spoken and written. I’m not foolish enough to judge people by the ways in which they talk and write. I contend nonetheless there are benefits to precise communication. If nothing else, it increases the likelihood of getting what you ask for — whether that’s a raise, a bank loan or a date on a Friday night.
That brings me back to what’s literally the most misused word.
By strict definition, literally means in a literal manner or sense. But literally also has come to serve as a replacement for figuratively as well as an intensifier intended to add force to another word.
Given trends in popular culture, it’s understandable to believe the misuse of literally constitutes a recent compulsion. But literally has been used in a figurative sense for hundreds of years.
Even famous authors used literally when they meant figuratively. Take a scene from “Little Women” in which Louisa May Alcott described an outdoor supper in a land literally flowing with milk and honey. Really? Wouldn’t that make it difficult to eat, not to mention awfully sticky? Or a line from “The Great Gatsby” in which F. Scott Fitzgerald stated his eponymous protagonist was literally glowing. From what? Exposure to radiation on Long Island? Even Mark Twain had Tom Sawyer literally rolling in wealth after duping a group of boys to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Better wealth than something else, I suppose.
In comparison to such literary luminaries, who am I to question the uses of literally in some of the best novels ever written? A persnickety wordsmith. That’s who. One who remains unconvinced. I’m more like another famous author, Ambrose Bierce, who decried: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”
I confess. I’ve given in on occasion to the temptation to use literally. I’m particularly fond of what I deem a well-turned phrase describing someone who literally wrote the book on the subject. But only if it’s true in a literal sense. The person actually wrote a book and wasn’t just an authority in an idiomatic sense.
What annoys me is the more widespread misuse of literally with such disregard as to render the word meaningless and those who do so almost comic.
Here’s the thing about English. If a word is used incorrectly often enough for long enough, it gains acceptance and new meaning. By some estimates, literally has entered the third or fourth stage of a five-stage scale. In the first stage, mistakes are widely rejected. By the time a word reaches the fifth stage, its misuse has become so ubiquitous only people derided as eccentrics reject it.
Count me among the eccentrics.
It’s impossible for people to claim their heads literally exploded. Even if they swallowed the dynamite that caused the blasts.
But it’s no exaggeration to complain I loathe the imprecise use of words.
I do. Literally.