Why The Grammar-Nazis Are Literally Wrong

literallyThere has been a tempest circulating the WWW these past few days over the use of the word literally (what, again?).

A number of blogs are commenting upon the fact that Google will offer up a second definition of the word literally (used for emphasis or to express strong feeling). They’re pointing at that definition as proof that the so-called informal definition has won out over the grammar-nazis.

That’s not exactly true.

I don’t plan to get into a debate over whether the second definition is correct; I frankly don’t care.  But I do want to contribute to the discussion by bringing up an 8-year-old article I found on Slate.com.

It was written by an editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, and he points out that the word literally has been used for emphasis for literally hundreds of years.

And here’s an excerpt:

Tom Sawyer wasn’t turning somersaults on piles of money when Twain described him as “literally rolling in wealth,” nor was Jay Gatsby shining when Fitzgerald wrote that “he literally glowed,” nor were Bach and Beethoven squeezed into a fedora when Joyce wrote in Ulysses that a Mozart piece was “the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat.” Such examples are easily come by, even in the works of the authors we are often told to emulate.

By the late 17th century, though, literally was being used as an intensifier for true statements. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Dryden and Pope for this sense; Jane Austen, in Sanditon, wrote of a stormy night that, “We had been literally rocked in our bed.” In these examples, literally is used for the sake of emphasis alone.

Eventually, though, literally began to be used to intensify statements that were themselves figurative or metaphorical. The earliest examples I know of are from the late 18th century, and though there are examples throughout the 19th century—often in prominent works; to my earlier examples could be added choice quotations from James Fenimore Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thoreau, among many others..

The article goes on to offer an explanation as to why the accepted usage stopped being accepted:

no one seems to have objected to the usage until the early 20th century. In 1909, Ambrose Bierce included the term in Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, offering the following sentence—”His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.”—as suspect. “It is bad enough to exaggerate,” he wrote, “but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.” Revered usage writer H.W. Fowler complained in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage that, “We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that … we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate.” The examples usually stigmatized are the ones in which literally modifies a cliché or a metaphoric use that is already highly figurative.

If this article is correct then the second definition of literally only fell out of favor because turn-of-the-century grammar-nazis decided that they no longer approved.

I say ignore them. If that doesn’t work, send them a link to the Slate article.

P.S. And if that doesn’t work, I plan to find and book mark copies of Twain, Dickens, and other classical authors who “misused” the word.

7 thoughts on “Why The Grammar-Nazis Are Literally Wrong

  1. Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive, as language and grammar evolve over time. If Shakespeare had strictly followed the grammar of his time, we wouldn’t care about his plays.

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