Literally: Triumph of pet peeve over matter

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have a number of pet peeves about how people use language. I am genuinely annoyed by the use of apostrophes before plural of numerals or acronyms like 50′s or ABC’s. But because I understand how language works, I keep my mouth shut. The usage has obviously moved on. I don’t think, ABC’s is wrong or confusing, I just don’t like the way it looks. But I don’t like a lot of things that there’s nothing wrong with. I get over it.

Recently I came across a couple of blog posts pontificating on the misuse or overuse of the word literally. And as usual they confuse personal dislike with incorrect or confusing usage. So let’s set the record straight! No matter what some dictionaries or people who should know better say, the primary function of the word “literally” in the English language is to intensify the meaning of figurative, potentially figurative or even non-figurative expressions. This is not some colloquial appendage to the meaning of the word. That’s how it is used in standard English today. Written, edited and published English! Frequently, it is used to intensify expressions that are for all intents and purposes non-figurative or where the figurative nature of the expression can be hypostesized:

1. “Bytches is literally a record of life in a nineties urban American community.” [BNC]

2. “it’s a a horn then bassoon solo, and it it’s a most worrying opening for er a because it is. it is literally a solo, er unaccompanied” [BNC]

3. “The evidence that the continents have drifted, that South America did indeed break away from Africa for instance, is now literally overwhelming” [BNC, Richard Dawkins]

The TIME magazine corpus can put pay to the non-sense about “literally” as an intensifier being new or colloquial. The use of the word in all functions does show an increase from the 40s, peak in the 1980s and 2000s returning to the level of 1950s. I didn’t do the counting (plus it’s often hard to decide) but at a glance the proportion of intensifier uses is if anything slightly higher in the 1920s than in 2000s:

4. This is almost literally a scheme for robbing Peter to pay Paul. [TIME, 1925]

5. He literally dropped the book which he was reading and seized his sabre. [TIME, 1926]

6. The Tuchuns-military governors are literally heads of warring factions. [TIME, 1926]

But there are other things that indicate that the intensifier use of literally is what is represented in people’s linguistic knowledge. Namely collocations. Some of the most common adverbs preceding literally (first 2 words in COCA) are graded: 1. quite (558), 2. almost (119), 5. so (67), 7. too (54),  9. sometimes (42), 12. more, 15. very, 16. often.

7. Squeezed almost literally between a rock and a hard place, the artery burst. [COCA, SportsIll, 2007]

Another common adverbial collocate is “just” (number 4) often used to support the intensification:

8. they eventually went missing almost just literally a couple of minutes apart from one another [COCA, CNN, 2004]

Other frequent collocates are non-gradual: “up”, “down”, “out”, “now” but their usage seems coincidental – simply to be attributed to their generally high frequency in English.

The extremely unsurprising finding is that if we don’t limit the collocates by just 2 preceding words, by far the most common collocate of literally is “figuratively” (304). Used exclusively as part of “literally and figuratively”. This should count as its own use:

9. A romantic tale of love between two scarred individuals, one literally and one figuratively. [COCA, ACAD, 1991]

But even here, sometimes both possible senses of the use are figurative but one is perceived as being less so:

10. After years of literally and figuratively being the golden-haired boy… [COCA, NEWS, 1990]

11. Mercy’s parents had pulled the plug, literally and figuratively, on her burgeoning romance. [COCA, Fic, 2003]

This brings us to the secondary function (and notice I don’t use the word meaning, here) of “literally”, which is to disambiguate statements that in the appropriate context could have either figurative or literal meaning. Sometimes, we can apply a relatively easy test to differentiate between the two. The first sense cannot be rephrased using the adjective “literal”. However, as we saw above, a statement  cannot always be  strictly categorized as literal or figurative. For instance, example (2) above contains a disambiguating function although it is not between figurative or non-figurative but rather between two non-figurative interpretations of two situations that it may be possible to describe as a ‘solo’ (one where the soloists is prominent against background music and one where the soloist is completely unaccompanied.) Clear examples are not nearly as easy to find in a corpus, as the prescriptivist lore would have us believe and neither is the figurative part clear cut:

11. And they were about literally to be lynched and they had to save their lives. [COCA, SPOK, 1990]

12. another guy is literally a brain surgeon [COCA, MAG, 2010)

Often the trope does not include a clear domain mapping, as in the case of hyperbole.

13. I was terrified of women. Literally. [COCA, LIFE, 2006]

This type of disambiguation is often used with numerals and other quantifiers where a hyperbolic interpretation might be expected:

14. this is an economy that is generating literally 500,000 jobs because of our foreign trade [COCA, SPOK, PBS, 1996]

15. While there are literally millions of mobile phones that consumers and business people use [COCA, MAG, 2008]

16. “Then literally after two weeks I’m ready to come back,” he says. [COCA, MAG, 2010]

Or sometimes it is not clear whether some vague figure is being intensified or a potential trope is being disambiguated as in:

17. He was the man who lost his wife when his house literally broke apart in the storm. [COCA, CNN, 2005]

These types of examples also sometimes occur when the speaker realizes that what they had previously only intended as an intensified use is an actual disambiguating use:

18. will allow us to actually literally X-ray the universe using these distant objects

Another common usage is to indicate a word for word translation from a foreign language or a component analysis of an etymology of a word. E.g.

19. theory of  revolution (literally,  an overturning) [BNC].

Sometimes this explanation includes side elaboration as in

20. “Ethnography – literally, textual description of particular cultures” [BNC].

“Literally” also has a technical sense meaning roughly “not figuratively” but that has nothing do with its popular usage. I could not find any examples of this in the corpus.

The above is far from an exhaustive analysis. If I had the time or inclination, we could fine tune the categories but it’s not all that necessary. Everyone should get the gist. “Literally” is primarily an intensifier and secondarily a disambiguator. And categorizing individual uses between these two functions is a matter of degree rather than strict complementarity.

None of the above is hugely surprising, either. “Literally” is a pretty good indicator that figurative language is nearby and a less good indicator that strict fact is in the vicinity. Andrew Goatly has described the language of metaphor including “literally” in his 1997 book. And the people behind the ATT-META Project tell me that they’ve been using “literally” as one of the indicators of metaphoric language.

Should we expect bloggers on language to have read widely on metaphor research? Probably not. But by now I would expect any language blogger to know that to look up something in a dictionary doesn’t tell them much about the use of the word (but a lot about the lexicographer) and the only acceptable basis for argumentation on the usage of words is a corpus (with some well recognized exceptions).

The “Literally Blog” that ran out of steam in 2009 was purportedly started by linguistics graduates who surely cannot have gotten very far past Prescriptivism 101. But their examples are often amusing. As are the ones on the picture site Litera.ly that has great and funny pictures even if they are often more figurative than the phrases they attempt to literalize. Another recent venture “The literally project” was started by a comedian with a Twitter account on @literallytsar who is also very funny. Yes, indeed, as with so many expressions, if we apply an alternative interpretation to them, we get a humorous effect. But what did two language bloggers think they were doing when they put out this and this on “literally”, I don’t know. It got started by Sentence First, who listed all the evidence to the contrary gathered by the Language Log and then went on to ignore it in the conclusion:

Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’ « Sentence first. Few would dispute that literally, used non-literally, is often superfluous. It generally adds little or nothing to what it purports to stress. Bryan Garner has described the word in some of its contemporary usages as “distorted beyond recognition”.

Well this is pretty much nonsense. You see, “pretty much” in the previous sentence was a hedge. Hedges, like intensifiers, might be considered superfluous. But I chose to use that instead of a metaphor such as “pile of garbage”. The problem with this statement is twofold. First, no intensifiers add anything to what they intensify. Except for intensification! What if we used “really” or “actually” – what do they add in that “literally” doesn’t? And what about euphemisms and so many other constructions that never add anything to any meaning. Steven Pinker in his recent RSA talk listed 18 different words for “feces”. Why have that many when “shit” would suffice?

Non-literal literally amuses, too, usually unintentionally. The more absurd the literal image is, the funnier I tend to find it. And it is certainly awkward to use literally and immediately have to backtrack and qualify it (“I mean, not literally, but…”). Literally is not, for the most part, an effective intensifier, and it annoys a lot of people. Even the dinosaurs are sick of it.

What is the measure of the effectiveness of an intensifier? The examples above seem to show that it does a decent job. And annoying a lot of prescriptivists should not be an argument for not using it. These people are annoyed by pretty much anything that strikes their fancy. We should annoy them. Non-sexist language also annoys a lot of people. All the more reason for using it.

“Every day with me is literally another yesterday” (Alexander Pope, in a letter to Henry Cromwell)

For sure, words change their meanings and acquire additional ones over time, but we can resist these if we think that doing so will help preserve a useful distinction. So it is with literally. If you want your words to be taken seriously – at least in contexts where it matters – you might see the value in using literally with care.

But this is obviously not a particularly useful distinction and never has been. The crazier the non-intensifier interpretation of an intensifier use of “literally” is, the less of a potential for confusion there is. But I could not find a single example where it really mattered in the more subtle cases. But if we think this sort of thing is important why not pick on other intensifiers such as “really”, “virtually” or “actually” (well, some people do). My hypothesis is that it’s a lot of prescriptivists like the feeling of power and “literally” is a particularly useful tool for subjugating those who are unsure of their usage (often because of a relentless campaign by the prescriptivist). It’s very easy to show someone the “error” of their ways when you can present two starkly different images. And it feels like this could lead to a lot of confusion. But it doesn’t. This is a common argument of the prescriptivist but they can rarely support the assertion with more than a couple of examples if any. So unless a prescriptivist can show at least 10 examples where this sort of ambiguity led to a real consequential misunderstanding in the last year, they deserve to be told to just shut up.

Which is why I was surprised to see Motivated Grammar (a blog dedicated to the fighting of prescriptivism) jump into the fray:

Non-literal “literally” isn’t wrong. That said… « Motivated Grammar Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.

Again, I ask for the evidence of what constitutes good usage? It has been good enough for TIME Magazine for close to a century! Should we judge correct usage by the New York Review of Books? And what’s wrong with “sound and fury that signifies nothing”? How many categories of expressions would we have to purge from language, if this was the criterion? I already mentioned hedges. What about half the adverbs? What about adjectives like “good” or “bad”. Often they describe nothing. Just something to say. “How are you?”, “You look nice.”, “Love you” – off with their heads!

And then, what is the measure of “overused”? TIME Magazine uses the word in total about 200-300 times a decade. That’s not even once per issue. Eric Schmidt used it in some speeches over his 10-year tenure as Google’s CEO and if you watch them all together, it stands out. Otherwise nobody’s noticed! If you’re a nitpicker who thinks it matters, every use of “literally” is going to sound too much. So, you don’t count. Unless you have an objective measure across the speech community, you can’t make this claim. Sure, lots of people have their favorite turns of phrases that are typical of their speech. I rather suspect I use “in fact” and “however” far too much. But that’s not the fault of the expression. Nor is it really a problem, until it forces listeners to focus on that rather than the speech itself. But even then, they get by. Sometimes expressions become “buzz words” and “symbols of their time” but as the TIME corpus evidence suggests, this is not the case with literally. So WTF?

Conciliatory confession:

I just spent some time going after prescriptivists. But I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with prescriptivism (even though their claims are typically factually wrong). Puristic and radical tendencies are a part of any speech community. And as my former linguistics teacher and now friend Zdeněk Starý once said, they are both just as much a part of language competence as the words and grammatical constructions. So I don’t expect they will ever go away nor can I really be too critical of them. They are part of the ecosystem. So as a linguist, I think of them as a part of the study of language. However, making fun of them is just too hard to resist. Also, it’s annoying when you have to beat this nonsense out of the heads of your students. But that’s just the way things are. I’ll get over it.

Update 1:

Well, I may have been a bit harsh at the blogs and bloggers I was so disparaging about. Both Sentence first and Motivated grammar have a fine pedigree in language blogging. I went and read the comments under their posts and they both profess anti-prescriptivism. But I stand behind my criticism and its savagery of the paragraphs I quoted above. There is simply no plausible deniability about them. You can never talk about good usage and avoid prescriptivism. You can only talk about patterns of usage. And if you want to quantify these, you must use some sort of a representative samples. Not what you heard. Not what you or people like you. Evidence. Such as a corpus (or better still corpora provide.) So saying you shouldn’t use literally because a lot of people don’t like it needs evidence. But what evidence there is suggests that literally isn’t that big a deal. I did three Google searches on common peeve and “literally” came third: +literally +misuse (910,000), preposition at the end of a sentence (1,620,000), and +passive +misuse writing (6,630,000). Obviously, these numbers mean relatively little and can include all sorts of irrelevant examples, but they are at least suggestive. Then I did a search for top 10 grammar mistakes and looked at the top 10 results. Literally did not feature in either one of these. Again, this is not a reliable measure, but it’s at least suggestive. I’m waiting for some evidence to show where the confusion over the intensifier and disambiguator use  has caused a real problem.

I also found an elluminating article in the Slate by Jesse Sheidlower on other examples of ‘contranyms’ in English showing that picking on “literally” is quite an arbitrary enterprise.

Update 2:

A bit of corpus fun revealed some other interesting collocate properties of literally. There are some interesting patterns within individual parts of speech. The top 10 adjectives immediately following are:

  1. TRUE 91
  2. IMPOSSIBLE 24
  3. STARVING 14
  4. RIGHT 9
  5. SICK 8
  6. UNTHINKABLE 8
  7. ALIVE 6
  8. ACCURATE 6
  9. HOMELESS 6
  10. SPEECHLESS 6
The top 10 nouns are all quantifiers:
  1. HUNDREDS 152
  2. THOUSANDS 118
  3. MILLIONS 55
  4. DOZENS 35
  5. BILLIONS 17
  6. HOURS 14
  7. SCORES 14
  8. MEANS 11
  9. TONS 11

The top 10 numerals (although here we may run up to the limitations of the tagger) are:

  1. ONE 25
  2. TWO 12
  3. TENS 9
  4. THREE 8
  5. SIX 8
  6. 10 7
  7. 100 7
  8. 24 6
  9. NEXT 5
  10. FIVE 4

There are the top adverbs:

  1. JUST 91
  2. OVERNIGHT 24
  3. ALMOST 19
  4. ALL 17
  5. EVERYWHERE 14
  6. NEVER 13
  7. DOWN 12
  8. RIGHT 12
  9. SO 11
  10. ABOUT 11

And the top 10 preceding adverbs:

  1. QUITE 552
  2. ALMOST 117
  3. BOTH 91
  4. JUST 67
  5. TOO 50
  6. SO 38
  7. MORE 37
  8. VERY 31
  9. SOMETIMES 30
  10. NOW 26

One of the patterns in the collocates suggests that “literally” often (although this is only a significant minority of uses) has to do with scale or measure. So I was thinking is it possible that one can use the intensifier literally incorrectly (in the sense that most speakers would find the intensity inappropriate). For example, is it OK to intensify height of a person in any proportion? Is there a difference between “He was literally 6 feet tall” (disambiguator) and “He was literally seven feet tall.” (intensifier requiring further disambiguation) and “He was literally 12 feet all” (intensifier). The corpus had nothing to say on this, but Google provided some information. Among the results of the search  “literally * feet tall” referring to people, the most prominent height related to literally is 6 or 7 feet tall. There are some literally 8 feet tall people and people literally taller because of some extension to their height (stilts, helmets spikes, etc.) But (as I thought would be the case) there seem to be no sentences like “He was literally 12 feet tall.” So it seems “literally” isn’t used entirely arbitrarily with numbers and scales. Although it is rarely used to mean “actually, verifiably, precisely”, it is used in proportion to the scale of the thing measured. However, it is used both when a suspicion of hyperbole may arise and where a plausible number needs to be intensified. And most often a mixture of both. But it is not entirely random. “*Literally thousands of people showed up for dinner last night” or “*We had literally a crowd of people” is “ungrammatical” while “literally two dozen” is OK even if the actual number was only 18. But this is all part of the speakers’ knowledge of usage. Speakers know that with quantifiers, the use of literally is ambiguous. So if you wanted to say “The guy sitting next to me was literally 7 feet tall”, you’d have to disambiguate and say “And I mean literally, he is the third tallest man in the NBA.”

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  • http://twitter.com/mweller Martin Weller

    Ok, you make a decent case but I still disagree. I agree about all the language being a living thing and not being prescriptive (I’ve given up on correct usage of fortuitous for instance). I think it devalues what is a very useful word. For instance if someone says “I was so scared I literally shat myself” there are two very different stories in that sentence depending on the use of literally. When used to mean “not metaphorically” it makes the listener sit up and reappraise what has been said. I heard a TV presenter the other day say “you literally just put it in the pan”. What does that mean? It adds nothing to that sentence. But I agree there are soem greyish areas, like in some of your examples above. For instance if I was to say “he used the word “literally” in literally every sentence” that’s kind of ok.
    I think there is a difference between being a pedant and enjoying the use of words for their value. People misuse (I know you will argue that it isn’t a misuse) literally because they hear people saying it in that context, and don’t know the ‘proper’ way to use it. If they did then they might use it that way. Otherwise it becomes part of lazy, football player speak, which becomes effectively meaningless.

    • Dominik Lukes

      Martin, I think the problem is that you build your argument on the assumption that words have some inherent meanings. If you open a dictionary you will find that almost no word in common use has a single meaning. Sometimes they have multiple meanings that are opposite of each other in different contexts (quantum leap = very large vs. quantum particle = very small). Our understanding of language is an interplay of our knowledge of the world, the context and out knowledge of “word meanings”. In my research, I’ve looked at how it is possible that the words German Holocaust and Jewish Holocaust can mean the same thing (they are in fact used about the same amount of time). And the answer is that we have knowledge of the world that helps us disambiguate (which is why you would not know without asking what I’m referring to if I say Hungarian Holocaust).

      In fact, disambiguation is what we do all the time in communication. (Kind of like hard drives that do as much data correction as data storage.) So the notion that a word is less useful because it has multiple possible uses and meanings is not supported by what we know about language.

      So the question you need to ask yourself is what made you pick on the word “literally”. You imply a scenario in which this once really useful word had a single meaning of identifying non-figurative use of otherwise figurative language and this meaning has since been devalued by its use for simple intensification. But as I showed, this has never been the case in your lifetime. In the last century, at least, literally has always been primarily used for intensification. What was the moment you realized what the proper meaning of literally was? Did you really learn it the right way and then heard it misused resulting in some irrevocable loss? How many times a day, week a month do you come on a situation where you would like to use the word “literally” but cannot because it has been devalued? I would venture that you had used the word literally in its typical intensifier use until you overheard somebody mention that it was wrong. As I found in my (albeit cursory) research, there are very few real situations where there is any doubt as to what is the meaning of the word “literally”. And in the case where there is any doubt, such as with “literally shitting oneself”, there are ample conversational and linguistic gambits available to make things clear.

      And next, why do you think the value of “literally” is so much more worth protecting than the value of similar words like “really” or “properly”. They all have their “literal” meanings and intensifier meanings, yet, nobody is up in arms about them. When they are used in their “intensifier” meaning, they also “add nothing to the sentence” in which they are used – other than intensification, of course. What is your criterion of being a useful addition to a sentence? Which of the words in “He’s really very beautiful” would you take out? Obviously you don’t need both very and really. How about “He was being really properly silly”? What makes words like “literally” so indispensable as opposed to all the other words that can be used for multiple purposes depending on context (which is pretty much all the words)? Aren’t you being a bit hyperbolic when you say “What does that mean?” of “You literally just put it in the pan”. You obviously know exactly what it means. It means a more intense version of “You just put it in the pan” in the same way that “I really hate that” is more intense version of “I hate that”. So are you devaluing the meaning of the word “mean” when you use it in a way that does not refer to actual lack of understanding?

      But you need to ask yourself more questions: What determines the “proper” way to use a word? Who should be an arbiter of word misuse? Why are you any more competent to judge the proper use of any given word than a footballer? Who is determines what words mean and how they should be used? What do they base their decisions on?

      On the one hand, linguistic peevery is a bit of harmless fun. But the danger I warn about, for instance, here http://metaphorhacker.net/2012/08/pseudo-education-as-a-weapon-beyond-the-ridiculous-in-linguistic-prescriptivism/, is that having linguistic peeves is a good way of amassing social capital of linguistic expertise. And since many people are convinced that they “don’t talk good”, being someone who has the reputation of knowing how to “talk proper” is a valuable thing. As Language Log shows every other day (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=62), people who complain about language use, frequently cannot to even properly identify the phenomena they complain about in their own speech. But they use their entirely illegitimate symbolic power to discriminate against people because of the way they speak. Which is why I spend all this time banging on about it.

    • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

      Martin, I think the problem is that you build your argument on the assumption that words have some inherent meanings. If you open a dictionary you will find that almost no word in common use has a single meaning. Sometimes they have multiple meanings that are opposite of each other in different contexts (quantum leap = very large vs. quantum particle = very small). Our understanding of language is an interplay of our knowledge of the world, the context and out knowledge of “word meanings”. In my research, I’ve looked at how it is possible that the words German Holocaust and Jewish Holocaust can mean the same thing (they are in fact used about the same amount of time). And the answer is that we have knowledge of the world that helps us disambiguate (which is why you would not know without asking what I’m referring to if I say Hungarian Holocaust).

      In fact, disambiguation is what we do all the time in communication. (Kind of like hard drives that do as much data correction as data storage.) So the notion that a word is less useful because it has multiple possible uses and meanings is not supported by what we know about language.

      So the question you need to ask yourself is what made you pick on the word “literally”. You imply a scenario in which this once really useful word had a single meaning of identifying non-figurative use of otherwise figurative language and this meaning has since been devalued by its use for simple intensification. But as I showed, this has never been the case in your lifetime. In the last century, at least, literally has always been primarily used for intensification. What was the moment you realized what the proper meaning of literally was? Did you really learn it the right way and then heard it misused resulting in some irrevocable loss? How many times a day, week a month do you come on a situation where you would like to use the word “literally” but cannot because it has been devalued? I would venture that you had used the word literally in its typical intensifier use until you overheard somebody mention that it was wrong. As I found in my (albeit cursory) research, there are very few real situations where there is any doubt as to what is the meaning of the word “literally”. And in the case where there is any doubt, such as with “literally shitting oneself”, there are ample conversational and linguistic gambits available to make things clear.

      And next, why do you think the value of “literally” is so much more worth protecting than the value of similar words like “really” or “properly”. They all have their “literal” meanings and intensifier meanings, yet, nobody is up in arms about them. When they are used in their “intensifier” meaning, they also “add nothing to the sentence” in which they are used – other than intensification, of course. What is your criterion of being a useful addition to a sentence? Which of the words in “He’s really very beautiful” would you take out? Obviously you don’t need both very and really. How about “He was being really properly silly”? What makes words like “literally” so indispensable as opposed to all the other words that can be used for multiple purposes depending on context (which is pretty much all the words)? Aren’t you being a bit hyperbolic when you say “What does that mean?” of “You literally just put it in the pan”. You obviously know exactly what it means. It means a more intense version of “You just put it in the pan” in the same way that “I really hate that” is more intense version of “I hate that”. So are you devaluing the meaning of the word “mean” when you use it in a way that does not refer to actual lack of understanding?

      But you need to ask yourself more questions: What determines the “proper” way to use a word? Who should be an arbiter of word misuse? Why are you any more competent to judge the proper use of any given word than a footballer? Who is determines what words mean and how they should be used? What do they base their decisions on?

      On the one hand, linguistic peevery is a bit of harmless fun. But the danger I warn about, for instance, herehttp://metaphorhacker.net/2012/08/pseudo-education-as-a-weapon-beyond-the-ridiculous-in-linguistic-prescriptivism/, is that having linguistic peeves is a good way of amassing social capital of linguistic expertise. And since many people are convinced that they “don’t talk good”, being someone who has the reputation of knowing how to “talk proper” is a valuable thing. As Language Log shows every other day (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=62), people who complain about language use, frequently cannot to even properly identify the phenomena they complain about in their own speech. But they use their entirely illegitimate symbolic power to discriminate against people because of the way they speak. Which is why I spend all this time banging on about it.

    • http://twitter.com/mweller Martin Weller

      I don’t think words have an intrinsic meaning, obviously they are just signifiers and it would be equally valid for the word for aubergine to be potato. But they have an _agreed_ meaning. Your stance takes relativism too far I think. In that case words can mean anything, which makes them meaningless. When I say happy I really mean violent, when I say nice I mean racist, when I say potato I mean aubergine. That’s not going to work.
      So yes I think literally has a useful meaning. Sure we can say it means something else, but we do lose something by doing that. I agree it’s not worth getting angsty about. I play with word use all the time and I have frequent battles with real pedants so I’m not trying to preserve word use in aspic. I don’t think ‘literally put it in the pan’ is a more intense version, it’s just a nonsense version. And if I can’t pick footballer’s up on their bland use of language what is the point of communication? It’s okay to comment on how well or badly someone uses language otherwise we get caught in a bland relativism where everything is ok. Liking some things more than others is ok.

    • Phil Greaney

      Agree with Martin here – don’t discuss a definition, discuss its use (now who said that?) If people – even if we disagree with them – use it in a manner that has widespread understanding, we might not agree with the colour, or the effect, or the quality of their figure of speech – but I would *literally* fight to the death to for them to use it (now, someone I think said something like that, too).

      Great post, btw

    • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

      You are obviously right that words have an agreed meaning – this agreement is called convention in linguistic circles – and there’s not a lot of controversy about that.

      But what do you think the nature of this agreement or convention is? How do we know what the agreement over the use of the word “literally” is? Was there some sort of convention on “literally” that all these other people missed and they are breaking some sacred covenant on “literally”? You say that you cannot say “happy” and mean “violent” but this has happened to a lot of seemingly positive or negative words: “wicked”, “bad”, “awesome” all transferred their meanings from the negative pole to the positive. “Wicked” and “bad” only in lower registers while the previous meanings retain their power, while “awesome” now mostly means good rather than terrible. But how do you know that I mean “good” when I say “bad”? From context. Who is saying it about what or whom. Or from the linguistic context – “bad” in the meaning of “good” has a regular superlative “baddest” rather than “worst”.

      The extreme branch of descriptivist linguistics would say that we can suss out this agreement from the analysis of usage. Because that is how we (subconsciously) learn the use of words as children. I actually advocate a more nuanced approach on this blog but this blog post was basically an analysis of usage in an attempt to figure out what the “agreement” on literally is. I looked at how the word “literally” is being used by the majority of the community and came to the conclusion that it is primarily an intensifier. And has been for at least 100 years. So it seems to be you who insists that people use it against the agreement.

      And the question you didn’t answer is “why?” And why not other words where exactly this same thing is happening. The problem with literally is that if you look at it, it’s etymology is fairly transparent. But you cannot judge the meaning of the components of words and figure out what they mean. Compare the difference between “our government” and “our agreement”. The components “our” and “-ment” act very differently on the verbs “agree” and “govern”. If you only knew the meaning of the components, you couldn’t figure out that “governments” have ministers and “agreements” don’t.

      But literally isn’t the only word with transparent etymology. So, what is it about “literally” that gets your goat? Why not complain about “virtually”, “naturally”, “practically”? They are all used in ways that goes against the grain of their componential analysis. “She’s virtually a genius” says something about the strong reality not, made up one. “She’s practically a genius” says nothing about practice. “She’s naturally a genius.” could mean either genius by nature or obviously a genius.

      Don’t these three words also have a “useful meaning” that is being lost? The answer is NO. All words have multiple meanings and uses. And they can quite happily coexist. “Literally put it in the pan” is using “literally” in concordance with current usage. There is nothing nonsensical about it. You know perfectly well what it means and you were not for a fraction of a second confused by it. You say that something is lost with changes in how words are being used. And that’s true. But nothing has been lost with “literally” it has not meant “not metaphorically” in a long time. You can give me some contrived examples of where it would have been useful as a disambiguator but I challenge you to give me 1 real instance in the last year where you actually needed it badly enough that a bit of circumlocution wouldn’t have done the trick. So it seems to me that it is you who wants to deprive the rest of the English speaking community of a useful intensifier that it has been using for a long time. Why is your need greater than theirs?

      I’d suggest that your peeve with “literally” over all the other words behaving in exactly the same way is it’s because it’s a safe choice. Nobody ever got fired for liking Mozart, reading Dickens, buying IBM or saying we use “literally” wrong. If you started telling people that they’re using “naturally” wrong, they’d think you’re crazy. But they’re insecure enough about “literally” that they might go along.

      But most importantly I don’t see any virtue at all in picking on footballers for the way they speak. Sure, you can do it but don’t expect any respect or even polite nodding from me. I think it’s a far worse cliche than what they say. I don’t follow football but I assume you mean the sort of non-sensical post-game interviews where they speak about giving 110% and taking it one game at a time. But why would you want to make fun of some (most likely) working class guy who just spent 2 hours running around on a field for not being eloquent in answering bullshit questions like “how do you feel” by lazy journalists. Sure these guys are paid well so I don’t particularly care about their feelings being hurt but making fun of their speech (and intelligence) is in some way making fun of the working class aspirations.

      Why do you think you are the right person to comment on how “well or badly” somebody uses language? Why not focus on their ideas? What if they’re finding it hard to express themselves through speech? How is this any more enlightened than making fun of someone because they have a stutter? Why not judge footballers on how well they use their feet? And why judge anybody by the way they speak at all? And isn’t it in contradiction to your aim of keeping things not bland, anyway? Why should everybody speak the same way? Or even speak at all, if they can express themselves in other ways. How is blandness a consequence of relativism? Surely, it is the other way around.

      And speaking of blandness and the point of communication? Have you ever talked to somebody about the weather? Or asked about their health? Did you really mean it every time? Obviously there’s more to communication than exchange of vital information. I listen to the Today programme every day but I tend to avoid the 8.10 interview with high-profile politicians because they never say anything I couldn’t have predicted they would say (or are asked any particularly unexpected questions). That’s because they follow a form, convention, agreement – if you will. Just like most speeches opening academic conferences by university big wigs. Most keynote speeches by invited academic celebrities, etc. And it’s the same way with footballer interviews. They are asked to say something new about a subject that is highly constrained in a way that is not their natural way of speaking. So they follow easy to use scripts. But it’s more a fault of those who put them in those positions (and those who watch them) than the footballers themselves. But expecting anything more than uniformity is like expecting to hear something new in a eulogy. That’s not the point of them!

      There is nothing relativistic about what I suggest. It’s perfectly fine to not like something (that’s how I started the blog post). But it is another matter to elevate personal dislike into a value judgement.

      So if you find the pointless conversations between footballers and journalists too irritating why not (instead of mocking people for not being good at what they’re not supposed to be good at) turn the TV off and read about communication. John Austin – “How to do things words” would be a good start. Then move on to Goffman on footing. Schegloff on conversation repair. Halliday on texture. Louw on semantic prosody. Labov on sociolinguistic change. Turn your disdain into something positive.