Monday, March 12, 2012

'It actually means something'

"Literally" seems to have set off a bit of a flap again, so here's a leftover from the weekend. It's not just a clueless prescriptivist rant, and not just a clueless prescriptivist rant from the National Review Online; it's a clueless prescriptivist rant that pivots on a descriptivist rant, and it manages to screw that up too. At issue is this sentence, ending a Times story:

“The issue is far more prevalent and far more important,” he said, “when you’re dealing with younger children who’ve come to this country and are here for 10, 15 years and are literally as American as anyone else.”

Take it away, freedom-loving stalwart Mark Krikorian!

Literally? Look, this isn’t like a dangling participle or split infinitive, the bans on which are stupid English-teacher rules followed by neither Shakespeare nor the King James Bible.

Partly right, in that vocabulary and syntax aren't the same thing and that the "ban" on split infinitives is a fiction that good, bad and indifferent writers alike were ignoring well before it was a rule. Your dangling participle, now, that's a different matter. There are ultra-bizarre variations on the dangler rule that do show up in journalism textbooks and the like, banning constructions that do show up (
without any major risk to the souls of the faithful) in the King James Bible, not to mention Churchill's memoirs and myriad lesser works.* And then there are dangling modifiers that deeply and genuinely screw up the intended meaning. One of my favorite in-class examples is this from the Classic Log days:

Without Washington's support, however, Saddam Hussein quickly crushed the revolt.

So it's hard to see how a guideline whose point is "pay attention to what your modifiers modify" should be summarily classed as a "stupid English-teacher rule." This, on the other hand:

Nor is it a matter of colloquial speech seeming out of place in writing. “Literally” actually means something, and it doesn’t mean “almost” or “for all intents and purposes.”

Bad news. "Literally" actually means several things, one of which is "not figuratively" and another of which is -- well, more or less "for all intents and purposes." The OED puts it more formally:

Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.

And if you don't like that, as the citations suggest, you can take it up with Mark Twain. (Or Charles Dickens, cited in the MWCDEU's patient explanatory note.) Back to the NRO rant:

I suppose what we’re seeing is “literally” being used figuratively, which is a problem since they’re opposites.
Sure. Grownup reference books note that the extended sense reverses the original meaning. And as the nice folks at Merriam-Webster put it, "hyperbole requires care in handling." But the world didn't end when this meaning crept into English in the 18th century, and it's at little risk of collapsing from a touch of well-worn hyperbole in the 21st.

There is, I expect, something afoot besides the NRO's well-documented inability to look up words like "literally." What do you suppose that might be?

*This very sentence, for one.

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Anonymous Ed Latham said...

It's an example of a worrying development, though - the rapidly crystallising idea that prescriptivism is 'conservative' and that descriptivism is 'liberal'. I find that genuinely alarming. As a subeditor on a left-wing paper, for instance, will I find myself waving through muddle and unclarity, in order not to be mistaken for Sean Hannity? In future, will the only people who know how to diagram a sentence be pundits from the Cato Institute?

The trouble with ceding prescriptivist accuracy to the right, from my vantage point in the culture wars, is that it reawakens the old narrative about left-wing intellectuals - woolly; imprecise; can't think clearly; can't write clearly; no need to take them seriously. It's impossible, for example, to take in the message from a hot-metal Guardian editorial on the oil crisis if all the 'p's have been set with 'o's and vice versa, as was known to happen in the old days. (And it's still the 'Grauniad' today - mud sticks.)

The truth is, whether we like it or not, that prescriptivised, formal, slightly behind-the-times English is the language of power: of the legislature, the courts and public discourse. It's a common language available to both the left and the right that they can use to speak to each other, and speak to power. If we're forced to go down the blind alley of post-structuralist linguistics because we're 'liberal', we'll just exclude ourselves from debate and influence.

8:08 AM, March 13, 2012  
Anonymous Eric P Smith said...

@Ed Latham

You are so right, and you put it beautifully.

Modern linguistics is strongly descriptivist, and for good reasons. But there is a place for being prescriptive, and some linguists do not see it because it conflicts with their ethos.

9:03 PM, March 13, 2012  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

The world didn't end when awfully and really became intensifiers and it won't end over literally, either.

8:16 PM, March 16, 2012  
Blogger fev said...

@Ed, that point's going to be worth circling back to in the future. I think there's a parallel to the strange divide in press coverage of foreign policy: the libruls are the ones who talk pragmatically, yet they're portrayed as the woolly-headed ones.

9:22 PM, March 18, 2012  

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