Quite literally…

The use of the word ‘literally’ has crept back into use in recent years.  I am not one for banning things, but I hope we can wean people off it.  It is very rare that is used to mean literally.  It is used for emphasis but if anything detracts rather than adds to the point being made.   Perhaps I should supplement the weekly quiz on Lords of the Blog with one on this site.  At the risk of sounding a bit like Quote, Unquote, I could start by asking readers to report occasions when someone uses the word incorrectly or, for that matter, correctly.   I suspect cases of correct usage will be extremely rare.

Apart from the use of ‘literally’ in conversation, I am dismayed by the number of times that print journalists clearly do not know the difference between principle and principal and between compliment and complement.   I will risk the wrath of some readers by admitting that I also get irritated when I see ‘decimated’ employed to mean ‘wipe out’ rather than to reduce by one in ten.  I know we have a living language and meanings change over time, but I still stick to the meaning that should be apparent from the very word. 

Then there are the journalists who appear to believe that the past tense of the verb to lead is ‘lead’ and not led.  Oh dear.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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16 Responses to Quite literally…

  1. Jon Chaytow says:

    “Tommy Cooper’s last performance went down quite well, but he ended up dying on stage. Literally.”

    But yes, few examples.

  2. Jonathan says:

    To link in with your previous post on sport, Private Eye’s “Colemanballs” used to have some good ones of these.

    “And he missed the goal by literally a million miles”

  3. Chris K says:

    We’re all pedants until we ourselves make the mistake. Many people I know say “I done that” which I know is wrong. But I wouldn’t know, for instance, the difference between “I’ve done that” and “I did that” which I would use interchangeably. Is there even a difference?

    I also overuse commas because I’m not entirely confident in my punctuation.

    And grammar terms, which I believe used to be taught at school, mean nothing to me. I may know bad grammar when I hear/read it, but I wouldn’t be able to explain why it’s wrong.
    For instance I wouldn’t know what a subordinating conjunction was if it hit me in the face… literally.

  4. ladytizzy says:

    I, too, am livid with such vandalism.

  5. Jonathan says:

    To broaden the discussion a little further, something that has really annoyed me recently is the increasing use of “appeal” as a transitive verb: “He appealed the sentence.” Appeal is an intransitive verb. You appeal against something, appeal to someone, appeal for something, or simply just appeal. You don’t appeal something. I’m going to make a point of contacting the BBC website team to correct this every time I see it.

    Then there’s also “train station” which always grates…

    • Lord Norton says:

      Jonathan: It appears to be something that has been picked up from the USA. It is not the only example.

      • Croft says:

        With the growth in the use of ‘bus station’ it does create room for confusion.

        On the Lotb what’s the latest post as I still see ‘Lord Hylton June 3’ as the top post?

  6. Croft says:

    If someone could stop MPs saying “my constituents tell me” usually followed by some self serving party political point that I doubt a constituent has raised with them!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: I do agree. It usually means ‘here’s a few constituents I have spoken to who agree with me’. Calling in aid the views of ‘my constituents’ raises the questions of the methodology employed. How many MPs carry out or commission rigorous surveys?

  7. Lord Norton says:

    I was chairing a seminar last night addressed by a number of academics. One said that Lloyd George ‘literally had to canvass opinion’, which appeared to be a superfluous use of the word, and another said that Churchill ‘had to literally bend over backwards’: that would have been quite a physical achievement for Churchill in his sixties. Had the academic not used ‘literally’ he could also have avoided a split infinitive.

    • Croft says:

      All assuming you accept that there is a problem with splitting an infinitive. It is a wholly irrational mid 19th century ‘rule’ long since abandoned by most grammarians.

      I’ve just sat through the budget and listened to any number of politicians and journalists repeatedly and seemingly carelessly use debt and deficit interchangeably. Is it really too much to hope for them to manage basic economics 😦

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I know, but once one gets used to avoiding split infinitives, it is difficult to break the habit. Still, I suppose I could boldly go…

        I know, there are a great many politicians and commentators who are unaware of the rather significant difference between debt and deficit, some of them at a rather senior level.

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