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More on literally
Posted: 30 January 2012 06:16 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Here from footie commentators to Joyce and Bellow.

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Posted: 30 January 2012 07:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Just your basic language peevery of the subclass “They get to do it because they’re great writers, but you’d better not try, you ignorant weasel” (or, as this peever puts it, “a writer must have good reason for misusing the word").  There is nothing wrong with this use of “literally,” any more than there is with the parallel use of “really.”

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Posted: 30 January 2012 11:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I usually find language-hating articles to be highly obnoxious, but I found this article to be a significant cut above most offerings of its type (of course, that’s a backwards compliment at best, analogous to saying that a trader in stolen goods is unusually honest as fences go).  I appreciated the fact that the writer at least ackowledged that there can be appropriate uses of a seeming misuse of the word, and that he acknowledged that some very good writers had not only violated the rule but done so to good effect.  Some hyperbole crept into the article (this country is literally going to the dogs) but it was more nuanced in its approach to this issue than most of its brethren.

I didn’t see the author as restricting the proper figurative use of literally to famous writers who are in a closed canon.  Rather, I saw him as holding them up as masters of such usage and as examples one might aspire to emulate.  The point does not seem to be that joyce gets to do it and you don’t, but, if you use it, use it to good effect, as joyce did.  Perhaps that’s a pompous thing to say, too, but less so than saying the greats get to do it and you don’t.

And, for what it’s worth, I am not particularly fond of using literally to mean figuratively unless the writer is accomplishing something clever by doing so.  Perhaps that observation is not worth anything, but I am hardly alone in this peeve, and I think there is a good reason why many are peevish about it.  Even those who habitually use it, I think, don’t necessarily view themselves as reaching the heights of language-artistry when they use it.  I certainly don’t pounce on every imagined misuse of literally, and hope I am not a language-hater about this or any other modern usage which is the target of unwarranted and hyperbolic criticism, but it is a usage I find just a tad annoying unless the writer is using it with either a trace of irony or some other goal in mind.  It is not “wrong” to use literally figuratively, but - with some very large and important exceptions - there is often a more elegant and/or more interesting way of conveying the same idea.  Absent some purpose for employing it, it tends to produce sentences that are at best uninspiring and at worst downright confusing, and it not infrequently results in conjuring up an unintententionally silly mental image (if the silliness is intentional, of course, that is another matter entirely: intentional silliness is, i think, a vastly underrated commodity).

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Posted: 30 January 2012 01:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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LH, I suspect that you saw what you expected to see.

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Posted: 30 January 2012 03:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I see it as an example of reasoning based on a faulty premise. The writer assumes that literally means, and can only mean, “exactly, by the letter.” Therefore, when a master of the language like Joyce uses it in another fashion he must be doing something grander with it.

But had the writer cared to actually look at the history of the word, he would have found that literally has carried a hyperbolic or metaphorical sense since the eighteenth century. Joyce, the master of the language, certainly knew this and was therefore unafraid to use the word in this sense in his own writing.

Close reading is fine, but sometimes you have to look beyond the text you are examining to find the answers.

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Posted: 30 January 2012 04:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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And, for what it’s worth, I am not particularly fond of using literally to mean figuratively unless the writer is accomplishing something clever by doing so.

Oh, I’m not either, but I’m not particularly fond of using any form of cliche language unless the writer is accomplishing something clever by doing so.  When I say there’s nothing wrong with it, I mean “wrong” in the sense the peevers mean: slap-your-hand wrong.  Of course there’s usually a better way to say what people mean when they use “literally” this way, but there’s usually a better way to say pretty much everything; that’s why they pay professional writers to write things.  My point is that the reason for singling out this particular lazy use of language ("literally" has a literal meaning and it’s being abused! words should only be used according to their basic dictionary definitions!) is absurd and shows that the peever does not understand how language works.

LH, I suspect that you saw what you expected to see.

I suspect that you are correct.

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Posted: 30 January 2012 05:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Perhaps Humpty Dumpty was onto something when he had this conversation with Alice:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.

“They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

Also, according to wikipedia:

This passage was used in Britain by Lord Atkin and in his dissenting judgement in the seminal case Liversidge v. Anderson (1942), where he protested about the distortion of a statute by the majority of the House of Lords. It also became a popular citation in United States legal opinions, appearing in 250 judicial decisions in the Westlaw database as of April 19, 2008, including two Supreme Court cases (TVA v. Hill and Zschernig v. Miller).

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Posted: 30 January 2012 06:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I’m not particularly fond of using any form of cliche language

I agree with this and it certainly applies to the metaphorical use of literally. But this is not the reason that people who complain about the usage give.

(Actually, there are times when cliches are appropriate and even the most effective use of language. But usually cliches are just lazy writing.)

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Posted: 31 January 2012 01:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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It gets tiresome, hearing people grumbling on and on about the way other people use words (one can be literally bored to death ;-). Most of us fall far short of James Joyce, or of Saul Bellow, in what we are able to do with words - even though the same words are available to all of us, as were available to them. So we’re not all wonderful writers, or great speakers. Tell me something I don’t know - and for goodness’ sake make it worth listening to, or worth reading, and worth thinking about. So much of what one reads, or hears - just isn’t (including that article, in my opinion).

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Posted: 31 January 2012 06:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I also think the writer should try to remember when he was a teenager and spoke in a way that annoyed people other than his friends. It’s part of the territory and a sign that all is well.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 07:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Hear, hear! to both lionello and happydog.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 09:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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A wiser man than me would doubtless drop this.  But, like a punch drunk boxer, I can’t help wading into the ring one more time.  I apologize to lionello and to any others who are heartily sick of this, but I have to take one more stab at this issue.

I readily concede that it is wrong to say that people are “misusing” a word when they are using it in a commonly accepted way.  I also concede that it is a mistake to try to use logic to discern what a word should mean.  Plenty of seemingly (and perhaps actually) illogical usages are common, well accepted, and readily understood.  Therefore, such usages are not wrong, and it is wrong to say that they are.  And it is ironic that literally-used-figuratively (luf) haters try to enlist history, and accuse luf-haters of “changing” the meaning of a word, when history shows that luf-usage is certainly not new.

But, I think there is something wacky, for lack of a better term, about using the word literally to mean either that a statement is the literal truth OR that is not the literal truth.  It is confusing for the same word to mean both a thing and it’s opposite, and the confusion is furthered when the word has a closely related term (literal), which is not, as far as I know, used to mean not-literal. 

In some contexts, of course, what is meant is perfectly clear, and it would be both pedantic and disingenuous to pretend otherwise.  But even when the sense is clear, ther is a brief moment of dissonance where my literal-minded mind says, really, this is literally x?, and then I figuratively whack myself in the head and say, oh, right, of course, by literally you mean not literal. 

And sometimes the meaning is not clear.  For example, dictionary.com lists the following as an example where “literally” means “exactly”: the city was literally destroyed.  The sentence might well mean that a city was literally wiped off the face of the earth.  But I think it is more likely that he speaker means either that the city was almost literally destroyed, or is using it hyperbolically and means, the damage was significant but did not come even close to completely obliterating it.
I think there is something clumsy, and confusing, about luf that goes beyond what is found in garden-variety cliches and lazy usage.  Garden variety, of course, is a cliche, and perhaps a lazy one at that, but there is not anything intrinsically confusing or seemingly-contradictory about it.  And, of course, any clumsy or lazy use of language can result in sentences that are confusing, jarring, or both.  But luf, I think, is behind the game before the race has begun (or starts with a score of negative ten).  A clever writer (no need to be elitist and restrict it to the “greats") can more than make up for this.  And, of course, sometimes, for any of several reasons, luf is not only not jarring but feels perfectly “right.”. Maybe it is because something clever is being done with literally itself, or maybe the sentence is so enoyable for other reasons that the literally is barely noticeable, or it at least fails to spoil the fun.

Finally, after re-reading the article, I agree that I vastly underestimated its pomposity and elitism, and i agree that I was not nearly critical (in every sense of the word) enough of the writer’s assumptions about what Joyce had in mind when he “luffed” it.  I do think it is fair to give a clearly talented writer the benefit of the doubt (I.e., to think to oneself, I’m sure s/he knew what s/he was doing) but it is another thing entirely to project on to another writer motives or meanings that would reinforce one’s biases, and the latter certainly seems to be what happened.  For what it’s worth, I think Joyce was doing something clever with his use of literally, as Ulysses seems (to me) to be playing with the different senses of the word.  But I don’t presume to know EXACTLY what he was up to, and would certainly not assume that what he was doing with it somehow dovetails with my language peeves.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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But, I think there is something wacky, for lack of a better term, about using the word literally to mean either that a statement is the literal truth OR that is not the literal truth.

Then you better not sanction something, or weather or wear something, or talk about what has left, don’t buckle, and don’t screen something. There are lots of words that have opposing meanings. There’s even a name for them, Janus words. Careful writers make sure the context makes clear what sense they intend (that is, if they are striving for clarity, which isn’t always the case; often ambiguity is the desired effect). And we need to cut people slack when they use such constructions in casual speech or writing.

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Posted: 09 September 2012 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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It’s a pity they stopped updating “Literally a web log”: they could have dined out on Biden’s DNC speech for a month. He literally said “literally” ten times. I can imagine the vein popping on Amber Rhea’s temple.

when things hung in the balance, I mean literally hung in the balance, the president understood this was about a lot more hope than the automobile industry.

Literally, it was about healing an unbearable wound—a nearly unbearable wound in America’s heart.

In fairness, most of the cases should not be controversial even for the biggest pedant.

And it literally amazes me they do not understand that.

he knew that no matter how tough this decisions he had to make were in that Oval Office, he knew that families all over America sitting at their kitchen tables were literally making decisions for their family that were equally as consequential.

My fellow Americans, we now—we now find ourselves at the hinge of history.  And the direction we turn is not figuratively, is literally in your hands. 

Fair enough. People vote with their hands.

I’ll tell you something else for free: I’m not a big fan of “equally as”. Always strikes me as double dipping.

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Posted: 13 September 2012 08:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Cautionary Ghost
http://xkcd.com/1108/

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Posted: 13 September 2012 10:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I once had a young man working for me, who prefaced every sentence with the word “actually”. I mean, literally, every sentence *:
What are you doing?
“Actually, I’m boiling some water”
What’s the time?
“Actually, it’s half past six”
Where did you learn English?
“Actually, in the U.S.A”.

I concluded that this was a form of nervous tic, like saying “er” before every third word, when one’s addressing a group. And I think sticking a gratuitous “literally” into a sentence might be a part of the same thing - expressing a degree of uncertainty, perhaps, as to whether what we’re saying is what we actually mean.

* He was only employed for the summer, so he managed to get away before I was goaded into actually killing him.

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