Sunday, August 25, 2013

Killing English

Literally’ Bothers Me, Too. But It’s Not Literally Wrong.
(By Bill Walsh, Washington Post, 22 August 2013)

‘We did it guys, we finally killed English.”  With that subject line and a screen shot of Google’s definition of “literally,” a Reddit user concerned about the language (if not about the correct use of commas) sparked a figurative firestorm this month.  The definition in question:

Literally, Adverb
1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly.
2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

To read some of the reaction to the second meaning, you’d think the language gods must be crazy. On Aug. 11, 2013, your head could not literally explode, but on Aug. 12 it could.  I can relate to the feelings behind that Reddit posting, having insisted on the original meaning in my three decades as a copy editor and in my three books on language. But first let me count the ways my would-be fellow stickler, and the ensuing consternation, went wrong.

In fact, the only thing new about that meaning was that somebody had posted something on Reddit. No matter: English sometimes defies logic, as “literally” proves, but it has nothing on the phenomenon known as “going viral.” The Reddit post spawned Twitter mentions and blog entries and newspaper articles. Within days, the Guardian was calling this nondevelopment “literally the biggest semantics story of the week.”  The “news” that the Oxford English Dictionary also notes the reviled usage made the story especially big in Britain. The OED “has revealed that it has included the erroneous use of the word ‘literally’ after the usage became popular,” the Daily Mail reported, as though the dictionary’s contents had previously been kept secret. A headline on that article was just as comical: “Definition added in September 2011 edition, but unnoticed until this week.”  It’s hard to quibble with the “unnoticed” part, given the reaction, but 2011? A blog entry on Oxford’s Web site does mention a 2011 online definition that reflects an update on “literally,” but it clarifies that the disputed meaning was first acknowledged a little earlier. As in 1903. On this side of the Atlantic, Merriam-Webster says it followed suit in 1909. 
The timing isn’t the only detail that outraged observers got wrong. They misunderstood the role that dictionaries play. When Oxford or Merriam-Webster lists a word or a definition, it isn’t conferring a blessing of correctness. It’s simply recording the widespread use of that word or definition. If you’re hearing the nonliteral “literally” or “irregardless” or “ain’t” enough to annoy you, that’s a case for including them in dictionaries, not against it.  As linguists and lexicographers and even copy editors pointed out amid the “literally” outrage, a usage that is widespread and established enough to land in dictionaries isn’t the only argument for letting the word evolve. Good writers have used “literally” nonliterally as far back as the 18th century. Charles Dickens used it. So did James Joyce, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov.

The word can mean both its original meaning and the opposite, which might seem odd, but so can verbs such as “sanction” and “dust.” Its secondary meaning makes for hyperbole, but so do many instances of “really” and “truly” and “completely” and “totally” that don’t seem to bother anybody.  And it’s almost always clear whether the word is being used in its original sense or, as that Google definition puts it, “for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”  Still, that Reddit post wasn’t written in a vacuum. The new definition is well established, but so is a strong disdain for it. The usage has become a pop-culture punch line. It’s fodder for comic strips and stand-up comics. Vice President Biden makes headlines with his fondness for it. The usage fills a chapter of my new book, “Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk.” However persuasive the historical and linguistic justifications, there’s something uniquely absurd about using the one word that most clearly means “I am not making this up” when you are, in fact, making something up.

Even dispassionate observers draw some lines between what’s technically defensible and what’s preferable. Several of the linguists, lexicographers and other scholarly types who rolled their eyes (perhaps even literally) at what one called this “tempest in a teapot” had previously acknowledged no great love for the secondary meaning. John McIntyre, a longtime Baltimore Sun editor and passionately dispassionate language blogger: “Let the record show that, for my part, I prefer to use literally in its literal sense.” Ben Zimmer, a language writer and former dictionary editor: “Still, that doesn’t mean I think non-literal literally is fine and dandy — I wouldn’t use it myself, and when I catch others using it I occasionally cringe.” 
Some of us cringe more than occasionally. We have a heightened sensitivity to the way words are used. We are the language snobs. The sticklers. The peevers. I found perhaps the one calling where my neurosis could be used constructively. It’s probably not normal to write “obsessive-compulsive” on a job application. But I did that in applying to join my college newspaper.  Some of us got this way because nuns assaulted us with rulers or because our parents corrected us to “may I” every time we said “can I,” or “lie down” every time we said “lay down.” Neither of those things happened to me — I just had a dad with a knack for spelling and a mom who did and does enjoy pouncing on malapropisms. I was raised, not “reared.”

I can’t vouch for all language peevers. There is no Peevers Anonymous. Perhaps there should be. (“The meetings literally last forever, but we could care less!”) But too many of us are caught up in rules-that-aren’t, striving to stamp out the passive voice and omit needless words in the name of Strunk and White, without understanding why passive voice is often appropriate or which words are truly needless.  I would never point it out directly, because I am not a jerk, but I hear from fans of my books who, while professing agreement with my rants, commit one or two of my most petted peeves. And then there’s Muphry’s — not Murphy’s — Law: It states that a piece of writing about usage errors will inevitably contain a usage error. (When you find the error or errors in this article, congratulations.)
I try to be an enlightened stickler. I recognize many of the so-called rules for the nonsense they are, and I fight for the right to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with conjunctions and use “hopefully” in that way that a lot of people hate. This occasionally puts me in a place where I’m meta-peeving: Sometimes when I spot an awkwardly unsplit infinitive, I know I’m looking at the work of a misguided fellow stickler. If I find out the stickler is the writer, I’m relieved. But it’s usually an editor, and that makes me sad. First, do no harm.

Peevers are sometimes misguided, but we’re generally harmless. Our exasperated sighs are likely to be part of a role we’re playing — props, in a sense, like a fop’s bow tie and fedora.  We know deep down that people aren’t doing things just to annoy us, even if every trend the linguists call inexorable brings to mind an infuriating counterexample. (If the unfortunate spelling “email” truly reflects a mass hatred of hyphens and love of onewordification, then why do people turn the perfectly good word “aha” into “a-ha” and “ah-ha” and “ah-hah”? If people choose the “bandana” spelling over the vastly superior “bandanna” because of a similar quest for brevity, why does “traveling” so often get turned into the British “travelling”?)
Last month on Slate, The Washington Post’s sister (for now) Web site, a brave writer named Dana Stevens wrote a 1,400-word rant against flip-flops. It resonated with me, and not only because I share Stevens’s feelings about flip-flops. How is using “literally” nonliterally like wearing shower-and-beach footwear outside its natural habitat? Well, Stevens threw in some nods to function, citing potential arch-support problems in much the same way that sticklers cite potential ambiguity, but it was clear that she was practicing peevery, not podiatry. In language as in fashion, outside the stylebooks that publications employ and the dress codes that some institutions enforce, there is no official list of rules. And as the comments made clear in the case of flip-flops, there will be those who do the things that annoy us and those who don’t.

For those who find cultural criticism, whether of language or of dress, unseemly, there’s good news: Practically nobody listens to such critics. Language and fashion will go where they go, and Dana Stevens articles and Bill Walsh books are more likely to reinforce opinions than to change them. Whether you mutter about anal-retentive authoritarians who should mind their own business, or you sniff about slobs who should pay more attention and have some respect for tradition, ultimately both sides are likely to coexist peacefully. At the end of the day, to use a cliche I’ve railed against, it’s important to separate style from substance.  So don’t be a jerk.

Oxford Dictionaries Adds ‘Twerk,’ ‘Selfie,’ And Other Words That Make Me Vom
(By Michael Dirda, Washington Post, 23 August 2013)
Can I speak srsly here? Style asked me to look over a list of the latest words, such as that one (which simply means “seriously”), that were added Wednesday to a resource called Oxford Dictionaries Online. Apparently the ODO offers such linguist updates every quarter, being a dictionary of the moment, a lexicon of contemporary usage. Nearly all the new words listed are current slang employed by young people and digital junkies, usually the same thing.  This is certainly not my world. FOMO, for example, means “fear of missing out: anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.” I can confidently say that I have never experienced FOMO in quite this form, since I don’t participate in any social media. Still, like most people, I know that the real party will always be happening in the next room. 
Back in my day, the revered 1960s — cue “Where have all the flowers gone?” — we never trusted anyone over 30; these days, it would be unseemly, even pathetic for anyone older than 30 to use a term like “squee” or “twerk” or “vom.” Or even to be aware of them and their meanings. I certainly wasn’t. Such words are useful — all words are useful — but most of this vogue lingo is wholly restricted to a certain demographic (kids with smartphones) and a certain context (instant messaging and Twitter).
“Squee,” by the way, is an exclamation of “great delight or excitement.” According to the ODO, it originated from “squeal.” No doubt, but I think the screech of a squeegee on a windshield might also play its part. “Twerk” means to “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low squatting stance.” I’m told by an informed source — my youngest son — that it is associated chiefly with the actress Miley Cyrus. It would be wildly inappropriate for a gentleman my age to recognize, let alone employ, this word. I’ll stick with “bump and grind.” Vom is simply a shortened form of vomit. It saves two characters when twittering. Or tweeting. Whatever. 
Like so much digital terminology, many of these new words are ugly. Ever since the computer age got going, it has gravitated to repulsive-sounding terminology, starting with all forms of “blog.” Writer, author, even journalist: All these sound like admirable professions. But blogger. Yech. I know the term’s origin — Web log — and I understand how people naturally gravitate to contractions, but the end result is still repulsive. Don’t even get me started on “the blogosphere.”
Unfortunately, rebarbative lingo seems here to stay: Jorts are defined as “shorts made of denim fabric” and presumably arose by eliding “jeans” and “shorts.” I imagine that “Klaatu barada nikto” is the international clothing chain behind “Jorts.” (My little joke: Think “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”) Widely used already, a MOOC is “a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.” This phenomenon is clearly here to stay, but “I’m taking a MOOC” sounds disgustingly lavatorial. A “selfie” is a photograph of oneself, typically “with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” When I first glanced at the list, I thought it said “selkie,” and I was impressed that Scottish merpeople were now on the cutting edge. 
A few of this quarter’s new words seem not at all new. Or maybe they’ve only recently made their way to the dreaming spires of Oxford. A “blondie” — meaning, in dictionary language, “a small square of dense, pale-coloured cake, typically of a butterscotch or vanilla flavour” — has surely been around as long as its darker brother, the brownie. Didn’t actress Jean Seberg have a “pixie cut” 50 years ago in “Breathless”? It can’t be a new word, can it? “Balayage,” a particular way of highlighting the hair, seems like something that a French hairdresser would toss around and nobody else. “Space tourism” simply joins two familiar words together in a new context. It’s a fresh concept but hardly a new word. Same goes for “street food.”
I’ve read that the term “omnishambles” derives from a British television show and was voted the most popular new word of last year. (Who does this voting, and where do they cast their ballots?) “Omnishambles” is defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.” Other than being an apt summary of my life, I don’t see how this word differs from plain old “shambles.” Which also describes my house.  It’s a real pity that former federal prosecutor Jim Letten’s recent use of “hobbit” — to mean roughly sleazebag or scum — just missed this quarter’s cutoff time. I hope it catches on. It comes trippingly off the tongue as a term of derision. (Sorry, Bilbo.) I’m sure it’ll appear next quarter. In truth, it seems about as hard to get into the ODO as it does to get into Dr. Nick’s Hollywood Upstairs Medical College. 
Still, of all the new words added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online, perhaps the most chilling is the acronym “TL;DR.” I sometimes fear that everything I value in the way of literature and scholarship will be casually dismissed with those letters: “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” Sorry, Leo. Sorry, Marcel.  One last observation: Most of these new words and acronyms are probably never meant to be spoken by actual human beings. They live and breathe only on the tiny screen. There, in the strange telegraphese of the smartphone, they quickly convey information and shrill emotion through typographic grunts and squeals. Or, rather, squees. No doubt they have their place, but let them stay there.
Weighing In On ‘Literally,’ But Figuratively, Of Course
(By Gene Weingarten, Washington Post, September 6, 2013)
To the Nobel Prize committee: 
I am writing to suggest that you make your first posthumous award in literature, and that it go to Ambrose Bierce, the 19th-century American satirist. I have always admired Bierce, but I do not write merely as a fan; I write to acquaint you with what may well be the greatest feat of long-range prognostication in the history of the written word.  While reading Bierce essays recently, my friend Jack Shafer discovered the following passage: “Nothing is more certain than that within a few years the word ‘literally’ will mean ‘figuratively.’ And this because journalists, with a greater desire to write forcibly than ability to do so, habitually use it in that sense.” (He was talking about this sort of imbecilic formulation: “I literally died of laughter.”) 
Bierce wrote this prescient passage in 1871. As you may be aware from recent publicity, the Oxford English Dictionary — arbiter of all things English — has finally, inevitably, sanctioned the use of “literally” to mean its precise opposite. It is a hapless surrender to, figuratively, eons of careless misuse.  (Note my correct use of the verb “sanction,” which has also been corrupted over the years to mean “to outlaw,” its precise opposite; the OED has been complicit in permitting this, as well. And don’t get me started on “imply” and “infer,” which most dictionaries now say can be used interchangeably, which is no different from allowing “pitch” to be synonymous with “catch.” This, too, was occasioned by sustained years of misuse.)
I am not a language tyrant, nor do I disrespect dictionary editors, to whom falls the distasteful duty of reading and listening to what is being widely uttered and written and adding these things to the lexicon merely on the basis of ubiquity. So, although I may cringe at “blogosphere” and “webinar” and, sigh, “whatevs,” I do not protest their appearance in dictionaries. But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.  
(I should mention that defenders of “literally” as “figuratively” note that it has been used that way once or twice by people with serious writing chops, such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. That no more makes it right or acceptable than it makes it right for you to annihilate 100,000 people with a bomb just because Harry Truman once did it.)  So, my point is that if you posthumously give Ambrose Bierce the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, you will be sending an important message to lexicographers worldwide.
Finally, I know that the Nobel committee tends to reward bodies of work; rest assured, Bierce successfully predicted much more than the trashing of “literally.” I’ll leave you with one more bit. Upon departing on horseback for Mexico in 1913, at the age of 71, to bear witness to Pancho Villa’s revolution, Bierce wrote this to a niece: “Good-bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”   It was the last anyone heard of him. The old gringo’s body has never been found.

The Period Is Pissed.
When Did Our Plainest Punctuation Mark Become So Aggressive?
(By Ben Crair, the New Republic, 25 November 2013)

The period was always the humblest of punctuation marks. Recently, however, it’s started getting angry. I’ve noticed it in my text messages and online chats, where people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce “I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.”  Say you find yourself limping to the finish of a wearing workday. You text your girlfriend: “I know we made a reservation for your bday tonight but wouldn’t it be more romantic if we ate in instead?” If she replies,

we could do that
we could do that
Then you can ring up Papa John’s and order something special. But if she replies,

we could do that.
we could do that. 
Then you should probably drink a cup of coffee: You’re either going out or you’re eating Papa John’s alone.

This is an unlikely heel turn in linguistics. In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive. “Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email. How and why did the period get so pissed off?

It might be feeling rejected. On text and instant message, punctuation marks have largely been replaced by the line break. I am much more likely to type two separate messages without punctuation:

sorry about last night
next time we can order little caesars
sorry about last night
next time we can order little caesars  

Than I am to send a single punctuated message: 

I’m sorry about last night. Next time we can order Little Caesars.
I’m sorry about last night. Next time we can order Little Caesars.
And, because it seems begrudging, I would never type:

sorry about last night.
next time we can order little caesars.
sorry about last night.
next time we can order little caesars.

“The unpunctuated, un-ended sentence is incredibly addicting,” said Choire Sicha, editor of the Awl. “I feel liberated to make statements without that emphasis, and like I'm continuing the conversation, even when I'm definitely not.”  Other people probably just find line breaks more efficient. An American University study of college students’ texting and instant messaging habits found they only used sentence-final punctuation 39 percent of the time in texts and 45 percent of the time in online chats. The percentages were even lower for “transmission-final punctuation”: 29 percent for texts and 35 percent for IMs. The same is likely true of Twitter, where the 140-character limit has made most punctuation seem dispensable.
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“In the world of texting and IMing … the default is to end just by stopping, with no punctuation mark at all,” Liberman wrote me. “In that situation, choosing to add a period also adds meaning because the reader(s) need to figure out why you did it. And what they infer, plausibly enough, is something like ‘This is final, this is the end of the discussion or at least the end of what I have to contribute to it.’”  It’s a remarkable innovation. The period was one of the first punctuation marks to enter written language as a way to indicate a pause, back when writing was used primarily as a record of (and script for) speech. Over time, as the written word gained autonomy from the spoken word, punctuation became a way to structure a text according to its own unique hierarchy and logic. While punctuation could still be used to create or suggest the rhythms of speech, only the exclamation point and question mark indicated anything like what an orator would call “tone.”

“Explicit representations of the emotional state of the person doing the writing are fairly rare,” said Keith Houston, author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Writers, linguists, and philosophers have occasionally tried to invent new punctuation marks to ease the difficulty of inflecting tone in writing.1 The “irony mark,” in particular, has been proposed many times. But none of these efforts has been successful.  Now, however, technology has led us to use written language more like speech—that is, in a real-time, back-and-forth between two or more people. “[P]eople are communicating like they are talking, but encoding that talk in writing,” Clay Shirky recently told Slate. This might help explain the rise of the line break: It allows people to more accurately emulate in writing the rhythm of speech. It has also confronted people with the problem of tone in writing, and they're trying to solve it with the familiar punctuation marks that the line break largely displaced.
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It's not just the period. Nearly everyone has struggled to figure out whether or not a received message is sarcastic. So people began using exclamation points almost as sincerity markers: “I really mean the sentence I just concluded!” (This is especially true of exclamation points used in sequence: “Are you being sarcastic?” “No!!!!!”) And as problems of tone kept arising on text and instant message, people turned to other punctuation marks on their keyboards rather than inventing new ones.2 The question mark has similarly outgrown its traditional purpose. I notice it more and more as a way to temper straightforward statements that might otherwise seem cocky, as in “I’m pretty sure he likes me?” The ellipsis, as Slate noted, has come to serve a whole range of purposes. I often see people using it as a passive-aggressive alternative to the period’s outright hostility—an invitation to the offender to guess at his mistake and remedy it. (“No.” shuts down the conversation; “No…” allows it to continue.)

Medial punctuation, like the comma and parentheses, has yet to take on emotional significance (at least as far as I've observed). And these newfangled, emotional uses of terminal punctuation haven't crossed over into more traditional, thoughtful writing. (I have used the period throughout this story, and I’m in a perfectly pleasant mood.) Perhaps one day it will, though, and our descendants will wonder why everyone used to be so angry. For posterity's sake, then, let my author bio be clear:  Ben Crair is a story editor at The New Republic!


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