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BL: literally
Posted: 21 August 2013 10:56 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I literally expect a firestorm over this one.

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Posted: 21 August 2013 10:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Dave Wilton - 21 August 2013 10:56 AM

I literally expect a firestorm over this one.

The concept that Nabokov, Twain, Dickens, et al. employed “literally” as a figurative or intensifier meaning does not make it correct. Creative writing should not set an example for proper usage.

Since you suggested that it should not be employed for expository prose, then that seems to imply a correct usage rather than an informal one. Faulkner and Joyce were quite dismissive to punctuation in their prose. When they employed stream of consciousness they omitted it entirely. I don’t think one has to be a better writer than Joyce and Faulkner to claim that bad punctuation leads to confusion and incomprehensibility.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 01:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m with Dave on this one. Words acquire meaning through usage and the figurative sense of literally has a long and honourable history behind it.

I personally don’t use literally in the figurative sense, but that’s only because it was drummed into me as a shibboleth by misguided English teachers. Other people using it that way don’t bother me. However, I agree with Dave’s qualification that it should probably be avoided in work such as academic writing, not because it would be incorrect, but because it could blur meaning in a situation where writing is subject to an unusual degree of scrutiny, not often encountered elsewhere.

Actually, the mere fact that the usage of ‘literally’ is something of a shibboleth is probably reason enough to avoid it in academic writing; it would be one more thing for a critical reader to complain about. I carefully avoid splitting infinitives in formal writing for the same reason.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 02:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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If you are, in fact attached to a chair with some sort of mucilage, and you said “I was literally glued to my seat” you would have to qualify that by protesting, “I really mean that. I was attached to my chair with (e.g.,) Elmer’s Glue-All.” This would tell me that the intensive meaning was the default in situations like this.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 05:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Since you suggested that it should not be employed for expository prose, then that seems to imply a correct usage rather than an informal one.

No, I’m implying there are different conventions for different genres. There is nothing inherently wrong with the usage, but there are situations where it is best not to use it. “Correct” and “informal” are not antonyms; one can be both (or neither).

Creative writing should not set an example for proper usage.

If you change that to “the conventions of creative writing are not a reliable guide to the conventions of expository writing” then I would agree with it. But to declare that there is only one “proper” usage and that Nabokov, Twain, and Dickens do not meet it is just plain silly.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 05:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I don’t understand all the fuss over “literally.” I mean, of course I understand the instinctive reaction; I had it myself the first X number of times I ran into the colloquial usage.  But then I realized it was exactly the same process that had happened with a whole bunch of other words (awesome!), rooted in an ineradicable human love of exaggeration and verbal play (such as prompted me to use “root” and “-radic-” just now), and I got over it.  Why do people love to hate it so?

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Posted: 22 August 2013 08:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Today’s “Zits” comic is fortuitously apt:
content.php?file=aHR0cDovL3NhZnIua2luZ2ZlYXR1cmVzLmNvbS9aaXRzLzIwMTMvMDgvWml0cy4yMDEzMDgyMl85MDAuZ2lm

I don’t know how long this will be good, but if the link breaks (or the image changes to the new day’s strip) you should be able to find it at zitscomic.com, searching for the strip for today’s date.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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If you change that to “the conventions of creative writing are not a reliable guide to the conventions of expository writing” then I would agree with it. But to declare that there is only one “proper” usage and that Nabokov, Twain, and Dickens do not meet it is just plain silly.

Well put, but you’re getting into semantics, and you ignored my punctuation analogy. Regardless, if you’re going to purchase an automobile which one do you choose, one that is reliable, or one that is unreliable?

[ Edited: 22 August 2013 08:37 AM by Richard ]
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Posted: 22 August 2013 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I suspect LH’s question was rhetorical, but I find it interesting.  I have some thoughts about why it might be so widely loathed despite being almost universally practiced, none of which are meant as arguments that the usage is wrong.

First, I think literally is a bit different from some other Janus words in that “literally” seems to have an obvious connection to “literal”, and “literal”, AFAIK, is not used in a figurative fashion.  This perhaps reinforces the notion that the use of literally that is consistent with “literal” is the right one, while the other use of literally is “wrong”, no matter how common it is.  Again, I’m not suggesting that that is a good reason to reject the figurative usage, but I think it may help explain the pervasive negative reaction to it.  With terms like “sanction” and “cleave”, OTOH, people don’t have any intuitve basis to seize on one of the usages as “correct” and the other as “incorrect,” so those terms don’t attract the same peevery.

Second, I think there is a concern that the figurative use of “literally” either has, or will, “ruin” the nonfigurative use of the term.  I.e., the use of literally to flag a metaphorical statement has become so common that one’s first assumption in encountering it is that the statement is not literally true.  I think this concern is somewhat grounded in reality: in an ambiguous sentence, using the word “literally” does little to clarify if a literal sense is meant or not, and, if anything, it would steer me towards the nonliteral one.  But the concern is also a futile one: an attempt to close the barn door more than two hundred years after the horse escaped.  “Language changes, deal with it,” is certainly a valid linguistic observation, but I can understand why it isn’t a satisfying answer, emotionally, to those who dislike this usage of the word.  (Of course, it isn’t a linguistist’s job to give an emotionally satisfying explanation of the fact of language change to anybody.)

Finally, I find (and I suspect that this is true of others) that “literally”, used figuratively, annoys me when it is attached to an already annoying or poorly crafted bit of hyperbole, but I barely notice it when it is attached to a clever turn of phrase.  For example, I cringed a bit when I heard a newscaster say there were “hordes of people, literally flinging their babies at the Pope.” I think it boils down to the fact that, for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons, the phrase “flinging babies at the Pope” annoyed me, and, when “literally” was attached to it, it made an annoying turn of phrase even worse.  But when a skilled wordsmith uses literally in a figurative fashion, it doesn’t attract my peeving eye.  And even pedestrian uses of “literally” often don’t bother me: being “glued to [one’s] seat” is a cliche, but, for whatever reason, it doesn’t annoy me, nor does the same phrase with “literally” attached to it.  But, when an annoying metaphor or hyperbolic statement has “literally” attached to it, it is easy to fixate on the use of “literally,” and avoid the deeper analysis of what is, or isn’t, wrong with the turn of phrase itself.  So, this may help explain why so many dispensers of writing advice condemn the figurative use of “literally”: it is easier to just tell students to avoid it than to give them nuanced guidance as to when it is perfectly fine and when it might best be avoided.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 10:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Svinyard118, I couldn’t agree more.

it is easier to just tell students to avoid it than to give them nuanced guidance as to when it is perfectly fine and when it might best be avoided.

I think this is at the root of a lot of “wrong” usages. Teachers either don’t take the time to impart the subtleties of good writing to their students. A clipped “don’t do this” is often all students get. (I’m not accusing teachers of doing their jobs poorly. Teaching writing is inordinately time consuming, and with class sizes of 20+, impossible to do properly. In most cases the teachers are prioritizing their time and resources as best they can.) Alternatively, students are exposed to the subtleties, but “don’t do this” is all they remember.

I follow a lot of pointless conventions in my writing simply because teachers told me “don’t do this.” (e.g., don’t use “firstly,” don’t start sentences with “however") I now know that these prescriptions are baseless, but they’re now ingrained in my brain. At least I don’t pass them on to my students.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Teachers either don’t take the time to impart the subtleties of good writing to their students.

Subtleties like following an “either” clause with an “or” clause?

[ Edited: 22 August 2013 11:35 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 22 August 2013 02:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Dr. Techie - 22 August 2013 11:33 AM

Teachers either don’t take the time to impart the subtleties of good writing to their students.

Subtleties like following an “either” clause with an “or” clause?

Subtleties “such as” using “like” only for comparisons.

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Posted: 22 August 2013 03:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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1886 R. L. Stevenson Lett. (1899) II. 41 A critic like you is one who fights the good fight, contending with stupidity.

Note: I’m not suggesting he’s talking about you.

[ Edited: 22 August 2013 03:58 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 22 August 2013 11:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Dr. Techie - 22 August 2013 03:47 PM

1886 R. L. Stevenson Lett. (1899) II. 41 A critic like you is one who fights the good fight, contending with stupidity.

Note: I’m not suggesting he’s talking about you.

I desist to another retort, for I acquiesce to Mr. Stevenson.

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Posted: 23 August 2013 12:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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"I desist to another retort, for I acquiesce to Mr. Stevenson.”?

Says it all. No point in replying.

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Posted: 23 August 2013 01:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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...

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