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OPINION: Debate over 'literally' is ridiculous

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By Bill Walsh

The Washington Post

'We did it guys, we finally killed English."

With that subject line and a screen shot of Google's definition of "literally," a Reddit user concerned about the language (if not about the correct use of commas) sparked a figurative firestorm this month.

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The definition in question:

Literally, Adverb

1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly.

2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

To read some of the reaction to the second meaning, you'd think the language gods must be crazy. On Aug. 11, your head could not literally explode, but on Aug. 12 it could.

I can relate to the feelings behind that Reddit posting, having insisted on the original meaning in my three decades as a copy editor and in my three books on language. But first let me count the ways my would-be fellow stickler, and the ensuing consternation, went wrong.

Nothing new. Literally.

In fact, the only thing new about that meaning was somebody had posted something on Reddit. No matter: English sometimes defies logic, as "literally" proves, but it has nothing on the phenomenon known as "going viral." The Reddit post spawned Twitter mentions and blog entries and newspaper articles. Within days, the Guardian was calling this nondevelopment "literally the biggest semantics story of the week."

The "news" that the Oxford English Dictionary also notes the reviled usage made the story especially big in Britain. The OED "has revealed that it has included the erroneous use of the word 'literally' after the usage became popular," the Daily Mail reported, as though the dictionary's contents had previously been kept secret. A headline on that article was just as comical: "Definition added in September 2011 edition, but unnoticed until this week."

It's hard to quibble with the "unnoticed" part, given the reaction, but 2011? A blog entry on Oxford's website does mention a 2011 online definition that reflects an update on "literally," but it clarifies the disputed meaning was first acknowledged a little earlier. As in 1903. On this side of the Atlantic, Merriam-Webster says it followed suit in 1909.

The timing isn't the only detail that outraged observers got wrong. They misunderstood the role that dictionaries play. When Oxford or Merriam-Webster lists a word or a definition, it isn't conferring a blessing of correctness. It's simply recording the widespread use of that word or definition. If you're hearing the nonliteral "literally" or "irregardless" or "ain't" enough to annoy you, that's a case for including them in dictionaries, not against it.

As linguists and lexicographers and even copy editors pointed out amid the "literally" outrage, a usage that is widespread and established enough to land in dictionaries isn't the only argument for letting the word evolve. Good writers have used "literally" nonliterally as far back as the 18th century. Charles Dickens used it. So did James Joyce, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov.

The word can mean both its original meaning and the opposite, which might seem odd, but so can verbs such as "sanction" and "dust." Its secondary meaning makes for hyperbole, but so do many instances of "really" and "truly" and "completely" and "totally" that don't seem to bother anybody.

And it's almost always clear whether the word is being used in its original sense or, as that Google definition puts it, "for emphasis or to express strong feeling."

I can't vouch for all language peevers. There is no Peevers Anonymous. Perhaps there should be. ("The meetings literally last forever, but we could care less!") But too many of us are caught up in rules-that-aren't, striving to stamp out the passive voice and omit needless words in the name of Strunk and White, without understanding why passive voice is often appropriate or which words are truly needless.

I would never point it out directly, because I am not a jerk, but I hear from fans of my books who, while professing agreement with my rants, commit one or two of my most petted peeves. And then there's Muphry's -- not Murphy's -- Law: It states that a piece of writing about usage errors will inevitably contain a usage error. (When you find the error or errors in this article, congratulations.)

I try to be an enlightened stickler. I recognize many of the so-called rules for the nonsense they are, and I fight for the right to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with conjunctions and use "hopefully" in that way that a lot of people hate. This occasionally puts me in a place where I'm meta-peeving: Sometimes when I spot an awkwardly unsplit infinitive, I know I'm looking at the work of a misguided fellow stickler. If I find out the stickler is the writer, I'm relieved. But it's usually an editor, and that makes me sad. First, do no harm.

Peevers are sometimes misguided, but we're generally harmless. Our exasperated sighs are likely to be part of a role we're playing -- props, in a sense, like a fop's bow tie and fedora.

We know deep down people aren't doing things just to annoy us, even if every trend the linguists call inexorable brings to mind an infuriating counterexample. (If the unfortunate spelling "email" truly reflects a mass hatred of hyphens and love of onewordification, then why do people turn the perfectly good word "aha" into "a-ha" and "ah-ha" and "ah-hah"? If people choose the "bandana" spelling over the vastly superior "bandanna" because of a similar quest for brevity, why does "traveling" so often get turned into the British "travelling"?)

Last month on Slate, The Washington Post's sister (for now) website, a brave writer named Dana Stevens wrote a 1,400-word rant against flip-flops. It resonated with me, and not only because I share Stevens' feelings about flip-flops. How is using "literally" nonliterally like wearing shower-and-beach footwear outside its natural habitat? Well, Stevens threw in some nods to function, citing potential arch-support problems in much the same way that sticklers cite potential ambiguity, but it was clear she was practicing peevery, not podiatry. In language as in fashion, outside the stylebooks that publications employ and the dress codes some institutions enforce, there is no official list of rules. And as the comments made clear in the case of flip-flops, there will be those who do the things that annoy us and those who don't.

For those who find cultural criticism, whether of language or of dress, unseemly, there's good news: Practically nobody listens to such critics. Language and fashion will go where they go, and Dana Stevens articles and Bill Walsh books are more likely to reinforce opinions than to change them. Whether you mutter about anal-retentive authoritarians who should mind their own business, or you sniff about slobs who should pay more attention and have some respect for tradition, ultimately both sides are likely to coexist peacefully. At the end of the day, to use a cliche I've railed against, it's important to separate style from substance.

So don't be a jerk.

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