7/12/2008

This literally is Mr. Rewrite's best post ever

Mr. Rewrite read a piece of professional correspondence today saying someone is "literally hitting the road," as in driving long distances to accomplish a mission.

It would be easy for Mr. Rewrite to guffaw and offer a sarcastic graphic making fun of the reference -- wait a minute, he's already done that. To his frustration, however, the use of literally has fallen into a gray area, though Mr. Rewrite won't ever say it's literally fallen into a gray area. Sigh.

To Mr. Rewrite and his usage guides, literally means in a literal or strict sense. So the passage that started this post would be correct if the person hitting the road was introducing asphalt to the business end of a sledgehammer. The New Yorker cartoon below illustrates the problem with departing from the traditional definition: "Confound it, Hawkins, when I said I meant that literally, that was just a figure of speech."

Fairly recently, according to Mr. Rewrite's usage guides, literally has been used widely to mean truly or without exaggeration. More worrying: It's become common in all but the most careful writing to see literally when one means figuratively.

Purists are holding out. Paul Brians (cue angelic chorus) says literally should stick to distinguishing between literal and figurative meaning. "Don't say someone 'literally blew up' unless he swallowed a stick of dynamite," he says.
Bryan A. Garner (angelic chorus again) says literally in the sense of truly or completely is a slipshod extension, a mistaken stretch of meaning. He says using literally in place of figuratively distorts its meaning beyond recognition.

Mr. Rewrite loves Literally, A Weblog, which tracks and pokes fun of abuses of literally, as shown in this graphic illustrating "literally making a name for himself":


That said, this very informative 2005 article from Slate asks whether purists have gone too far in criticizing the evolution of literally, noting that other words have come to carry seemingly contradictory meanings.

The very forgiving Dictionary.com accepts the controversial definitions of literally, but editors there felt compelled to offer this caveat:
Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived.
That raises an important point: Literally usually is redundant in any of its forms. In nearly every case, it can be eliminated without harming flow or clarity.

While Mr. Rewrite remains a purist on literally, he's all for the simplest possible solution to a problem. In this case, he recommends eliminating literally wherever possible so you don't expose yourself to volleys from snobs such as Mr. Rewrite.

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