Dear Crabby,

Is anyone else going to literally vomit if they hear the word “literally” one more time?

What is it with the overuse of this word? We used to assume people meant what they were saying, but now they feel the need to add “literally” in front of everything they say.

Really, “I literally crashed my car,” as opposed to “I fictitiously crashed my car”? Not necessary. Then there are the people who say “I seen it.” Come on, people, where’s your grammar? It’s I saw it.

Thanks for letting me vent.


Literally Fuming

Dear Fuming,

I get grammar and usage questions all the time.

While it’s a topic I’m always willing to discuss, because nothing fascinates me more, I suspect all of the pedants who write me expecting an ally end up disappointed. So bear that in mind as we go.

OK. Moving on.

Literally is a funny one, because its misuse is frequently so perfectly wrong. It means “in a literal sense,” as opposed to figuratively. But it’s often used figuratively as in, “I literally died of laughter,” which is the exact opposite of how it should be used. I get a kick out of it, as it seems do you (judging by your winking use of “literally vomit”).

It’s also often used superfluously, if not necessarily incorrectly, as a method of emphasis, as in your “literally crashed my car” example. (An example that, as a recovering pedant myself, I must point out is imprecise. You mean “figuratively,” not “fictitiously.” And, for what it’s worth, people do figuratively crash cars — “That meeting was a real car wreck,” et cetera.)

All of this usage is interesting to me, but none of it annoys me. In the roughly two decades since I last worked as a copy editor (The State News, Michigan State University’s independent voice, spring semester 2000), I’ve evolved from strict linquistic prescriptivist to hippie-dippie linquistic descriptivist. I just don’t care about the rules anymore. I’m burning draft cards and bras and Oxford commas. I’m tuning in, turning on and dropping out of caring about split infinitives. (Other metaphors we would have accepted here include: I’m opening the gates to the barbarians. I’m the reed, not the oak.)

See, the thing is: Language evolves constantly, breaking and rewriting rules as it goes. If you look at it that way, getting hung up on the rules seems pointless. The only criterion that actually matters is coherence. The misuse of literally to mean “virtually,” which Merriam-Webster added as a second definition a few years back, can occasionally cause some confusion. But not in any of the examples that you mention.

And you definitely know what someone means when they say “I seen it.” Given that, what’s the problem? Is “seen it” not proper enough for you, m’lord? Do you look down on the dirty-faced rabble as they scurry around you begging for crumbs? Are you that kind of elitist? One who thinks proper conjugation equates perfectly with intelligence or even human worth? ‘Cause that’s what I read when I read someone complain about “seen it” versus “saw it.” And that’s not how I want to be anymore.

Hope that helps.



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