The word “literally” is most troubling to me. And I believe it may be time for us to bid it a fond farewell.
I am something of a connoisseur of grammar snobbery. I hate grammar snobs, but it is fun to keep note of what little things drive them crazy. A friend of mine recently used the word “principal” in an email where he meant “principle.” I saw no reason to alert him to the error, because I’m sure he does know the difference. I make these kind of mistakes all the time myself. I constantly find myself typing “their” when I mean “there.” And even more bizarre, “their are” when I mean “they’re.”
Such errors can indicate ignorance, but they almost never do. I went through a short period where I repeatedly spelled “throne” as “thrown.” A reader kindly alerted me. But it wasn’t that I didn’t know how to spell the word. It’s just that I use the word “thrown” all the time and “throne” almost never. And I literally didn’t even think about it. But had George RR Martin put out a book called A Game of Throwns, my mind would have gone on tilt.
One of the greatest of the pedant’s concerns is the word “literally” when it is used to mean “not literally.” For example, “His suitcase literally weighed a ton.” Unless we are talking about some curious event out of a Discworld, that suitcase did not weight a literal ton. The speaker means to say that the suitcase was really heavy. More to the point, “His suitcase figuratively weighed a ton.” But that there is a sentence that no one could love.
The problem for the grammar pedant is that the dictionary definition of “literally” does, in fact, include the meaning, “not literally; figuratively.” Now I know what the pedants answer back with when this is pointed out, “Just because something has been done wrong a long time doesn’t make it right!” But they are wrong. Just look at our language! It is mostly a collection of things done wrong for a long time. That’s what languages are — unless they are Esperanto. Really! You think Latin is perfect. Ha!
I’ve written about this subject before, Why “Literally” Normally Means “Not Literally.” So it might seem strange that I’m bringing it up again. But I was reading an article by Brian Beutler Saturday morning, Will Marco Rubio Finally Be Tested? And in that article, he wrote the dastardly sentence, “Over the past several months, Rubio has: introduced a tax plan that literally zeroes out investment and inheritance taxes…”
Beutler is a good writer and what he means is that Rubio introduced a tax plan that in fact cuts these taxes to zero. In other words, he used “literally” to mean, well, “literally.” But I still had to take a moment and think, “Does he mean literally literally or figuratively literally?” This is not his fault! But the word has become poisoned to such an extent, that my assumption is that the writer means “figuratively.” And that’s bad news for the “correct” use of the word.
For a long time, as a writer, I’ve been very careful with the word. I try only to use it in its old sense. But now I think it is best to get rid of it. It’s just one more intensifier in a language that is quickly becoming nothing but. What are we to do? It’s just confusing at this point, and I doubt very seriously that the old definition will last the century.
There’s another problem with the word anyway: it isn’t necessary. Beutler could have written, “Over the past several months, Rubio has: introduced a tax plan that zeroes out investment and inheritance taxes…” No need for “literally.” Just the same, so much of writing is not strictly necessary. In that sentence, Beutler was using the word as an intensifier — to drive home the extreme nature of what Rubio is proposing. But there are other ways to do that. I think “amazingly” and “unbelievably” would work better.
So maybe we can all get by without our little friend “literally.” I’m going to try.