Literally a Blog Post

This is literally a request from one of my readers (perhaps all of my readers?). I mean that literally. Or do I?

Many of the students that I teach are young, sixteen to twenty years old. Slightly more than half are female. And about twenty percent of those (or so) have a verbal tic. They use “literally” as an intensifier. (In case you’re curious, the fellows tend to tic on “you know?”). This drives many people, particularly of an older generation, nuts.

Newer dictionaries may include this definition in their entries. Check out the informal definitions here. To understand why, we need a little background. Originally, dictionaries were meant to illustrate the “correct” way of spelling, pronouncing, and using words. This worked reasonably well and allowed people to open a dictionary and say “See, I’m right!” Much fun was had by people like me who like to be correct.

At some point, the dictionary folks decided that perhaps their job was not just to please people like me, but also to record how people used the language. This caused great consternation from the “but how will we prove it’s wrong?” crowd. (If you want to know more, look up prescriptive vs descriptive–it’s going to mostly be about grammar, but dictionaries pop up too).

So, now we are in the situation that if people look up literally,  they will discover that their usage is supported (although with an asterisk–note that both of the non-standard uses are noted as “informal”). But its original meaning (something that would normally be considered figurative but is happening) remains opposite from the current usage. So what do we do?

A couple of things spring to mind. One, we could teach elocution or public speaking in schools. One of the reasons that people use these verbal tics is that they get nervous when speaking in front of cameras, teachers, bosses and when they are passionate or excited about something. If they are more comfortable with presenting themselves verbally, they should say fewer uhs, ahs, ums, you knows, and literallys.

Another option is to either force the dictionary makers to go back to prescriptivism (good luck!), have them note preferred usage, or publish two dictionaries–one prescriptive and one descriptive. However, in a free  country (with a wild, ever-changing language) with no Academy to enforce language (which mostly doesn’t work–the French version has been fighting for decades against “Le weekend” without much luck) that’s unlikely.

Third, we could install small shock collars on everyone to rid them of their linguistic tics like those invisible fences that we use for dogs. However, if it’s cruel to do to dogs, it’s probably cruel for people. Even the people who, you know, literally go on, you know, television, and like, literally drive the people, like at home, you know, insane, you know.

Fourth, we could all self-medicate with whatever lowers our stress levels, man, and just love one another, you grok?

Other ideas?

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