Grammar as Virtue

October 25, 2010

Seen today on Facebook:

[My] #1 grammatical pet peeve: when people say “literally” and it’s not, such as: “walking into my room is like walking through a minefield, literally.”

Calling Hyacinth Bucket!

To quote Charles Johnson at length (from another Facebook conversation in which he took me to task for choosing “you and I both” over “you and me both”):

I don’t think you’re misapplying the rule; but I think the rule itself is counterfeit rather than genuine English grammar, and that the results in this case are bad English…

The rules of grammar survive in a knuckle-rapping educational culture, but good spontaneous English tends to systematically disregard or violate them, especially in cases where following them would require you to say something really obviously awkward. To the extent they’re not actually honored in people’s un-self-conscious thought and speech, I think that such rules are not linguistic rules at all, but rather are serving a different, much more sociological function. Anyway. There are cases in which applying the counterfeit rule may produce something which just sounds stilted (e.g. “Billy and I went to the store”), cases where applying the rule would produce something clearly wrong (I think answering “Who paid for the pizza?” with “We!” would be an error, just as saying “I’m being picky today, amn’t I?” would be an error, although superficially more consistent with English conjugations than the correct “… aren’t I?”). To be sure, so long as mutual comprehensibility is preserved, the line between “bad English” in the sense of mere ugliness and “bad English” in the sense of grammatical wrongness may not always be that sharp a line, so perhaps “It was we!” or “You and I both” could qualify as borderline cases. Incidentally, I don’t know whether I think there’s really a rule governing the correct usage here; the simple rule is wrong, and if there is a real rule expressible in general terms, it’s certainly a more complex rule than I could formulate. In any case I think that grammar is often governed by virtues rather than by rules. For what that’s worth.

The same, I venture, goes for “literally” vs. “figuratively.” I think the rule my Facebook friend is implying in her frustration is a counterfeit rule. It’s all nice, neat, logical, and oh-so-correct but it’s not good, spontaneous English.

Jesse Sheidlower tells it like it is:

In the case of literally, the “right” meaning is said to be “exactly as described; in a literal way,” because that’s what the base word literal is supposed to mean. In fact, the literal meaning of literal would be something like “according to the letter,” but it’s almost never used this way. “He copied the manuscript literally” would be one possible example. So when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters—to whole words, or to thoughts in general—we are already walking down the figurative path, and if we end up with people eating curry so hot that their mouths are “literally on fire,” how surprised can we be?

The trouble with usage criticism of the sort leveled at literally is that it’s typically uneven: Parallel uses are frequent and usually pass unnoticed. For every peruse there’s a scan (see my essays on these terms here and here); for every hopefully there’s a clearly; and for every literally there’s a really: Or did you expect people to complain when really is used to emphasize things that are not “real”? When Meg, in Little Women, moaned that “It’s been such a dismal day I’m really dying for some amusement,” she wasn’t the one dying.

The one sensible criticism that can be made about the intensive use of literally is that it can often lead to confusing or silly-sounding results. In this case, the answer is simple: Don’t write silly-soundingly. Some usage books even bother to make this point about literally. Then again, most usage advice could be reduced to one simple instruction: “Be clear.” But that would be the end of a publishing category.

So unless you’re answering your pearl-white slim-line push-button telephone with automatic last-number redial for the English department, go with Orwell and “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” I, for one, hope I never hear someone say, “Walking into my room is like walking through a minefield, figuratively.” Gag!


4 Responses to “Grammar as Virtue”

  1. smally Says:

    Good post.
    I recommend the post Literally: A History at Language Log.

    I’m curious: what was it about “you and I both” that was objectionable?

  2. Neverfox Says:

    In brief, that it was correct relative to a “counterfeit” rule, i.e. a rule that stands on its logic despite resulting in rather stilted English that isn’t how people really speak (unless you’re Hyacinth Bucket). To save face, I stand by the idea that it’s a very subtle example of one, unlike “Amn’t I?”

  3. Gene Callahan Says:

    A choice between two words that are both adverbs is not a grammatical choice.

  4. Neverfox Says:

    If you want to argue that grammar is limited to syntax and doesn’t include semantics, I wouldn’t find that very convincing. However, if you’re saying that there is a distinction between usage and grammar, sure. Fair enough. The point about virtue stands.

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