Grammar Wednesday on a Friday

I found this bit at Bo’s blog:

“We had 300 people outside, literally freezing to death,” Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton marveled on Tuesday before a crowd in Iowa City.

No word on what she and/or her campaign staff ultimately did with the bodies, or how far along they were when she made the remark.

The Clinton body count is serious business.

I have a deep and abiding appreciation for Bo’s sense of humor.

He’d gotten the quote from the NYTimes website – here, in fact.  Now, I know that the NYT people were quoting Senator Clinton directly, and that one is not supposed to correct the grammar in direct quotes, but come on!

Literally means literally.  Our language uses the term as hyperbole, but I maintain that it’s important to used the word literally when that’s what is meant.  No one, I suspect, was in immediate danger of expiring due to hypothermia (that’s when one’s body temperature is too low – hyperthermia is when it’s too high – I always used to get them confused).  There may have been people in literal danger of frostbite or hypothermia, but that’s not what she said.

Of course, there were other great quotes in the article; it seems that the grueling campaign schedule has taken its toll on the eloquence of the candidates:

“I won’t remember Iowans,” Mitt Romney declared in Altoona the other day before his wife, Ann, corrected him. (He meant that he would “never forget” Iowans.)

Mike Huckabee offered his “apologies” last week over the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. (He meant “sympathies,” his campaign clarified.)

Sleeping much?



Filed under Blogroll, funniness, General Griping, Grammar, out in the real world, Yikes!

16 responses to “Grammar Wednesday on a Friday

  1. so funny! thanks for posting these.

  2. I don’t understand the dislike of “literally” as a figurative intensifier. Why should “literally” be the only word in English that we are not allowed to use figuratively? If I say “I’m really starving,” I’m using figurative language. I’m not starving for real. Why is “literally” different?

    btw, “literally” has been used as a figurative intensifier since 1760, and it’s been used by good writers like Joyce, Dickens, Nabokov and Thackeray.

  3. That literally makes me want to thump Hillary on the nose.

  4. God, these candidates are heartless.

    Funniest GW yet. Literally.

  5. I think Romney’s first iteration of the comment was probably frighteningly accurate. Nice to see an honest candidate. Too bad his wife is a dirty liar.

  6. Perhaps she meant they were littorally freezing to death, as in freezing to death on a beach. Is Iowa on the coast (pardon my lack of American geography)?

    I have to side with John again on this; literally doesn’t literally meant literally anymore. Besides, it was only a rather obscure sense of the word that meant ‘in the primary sense of the word’. In fact if you want to literally define literally, you’d have to say that Clinton said people were freezing to death in a manner that pertains to the letters of the alphabet, perhaps in alphabetical surname order.

    Finally, true, one shouldn’t fix grammatical errors in direct quotes, rather, leave them and put [sic], but this is surely a semantic error issue more than it is grammatical.

  7. Bo

    John, you touch on one of the reasons I don’t like misuse of “literally”: it doesn’t add anything. “It’s an adverb, Sam. It’s a lazy tool of a weak mind.” – Kevin Spacey as Casey, Outbreak

    If you’re a fat and happy American, and you say you’re starving, it’s understood that you are not, in fact, dying of malnutrition. What does “literally” (or for that matter, “really”) add?

    The more important reason I dislike its misuse is that it’s a precise term being used oppositely. “Literally” is an objective word. There are no shades of meaning; “literally” is “literally.” (Contrast a word like “bad,” another one often used to mean its opposite. It’s a subjective term; “bad” does not mean “bad,” regardless of context.)

    Diminishing precision in language offends me. There are many words for which shades of meaning speak to the cores of their respective appeals. We need not chip at the black-and-white ones too. I’ve written of this duality before; check out the Language category at my blog sometime if you’re interested.

    Finally, I’m little persuaded by your list of abusers, however prominent. Given language’s ever-evolving nature—a source of both beauty and frustration, in my view—I have as much right to shape it as any of them had.

    Are they infallible? Well, let’s put it like so: Grace Slick sang “White Rabbit.” But she also sang “We Built This City.”

  8. Bo

    Jangari: Remember, the dictionary dictates, but it also reflects. Correct usage becomes such by brute force. But that brute force is the sum of millions of voices, right? I may be blowing bubbles into a snowstorm, but I’m not alone.

    Probably, the battle for “literally” is lost. But it’s free to keep fighting it.

  9. “Contrast a word like “bad,” another one often used to mean its opposite. It’s a subjective term; “bad” does not mean “bad,” regardless of context.”

    Bo, in the immortal words of Huey Lewis, “sometimes, bad is bad….”

  10. Bo


    I had a bad chicken salad sandwich for lunch.

    Adolph Hitler was a bad man.


    Conversely, “literally” is “literally.”

  11. Hmm, Bo I think you misunderstand my position on this and on language generally. I think dictionaries in fact do not dictate and that they merely reflect. What I was (facetiously) arguing above was under the premise that there is an objective meaning and the dictionary is the arbiter, a proposition with which I disagree completely.

    My point is that like it or not, literally is used in a figurative, non-literal¹ sense very frequently. I would even go as far as to say that in actual usage, the figurative sense out-numbers its ‘literal’ sense.

    Finally, I’m not sure what to make of your quip about adverbs. Are they any less expressive or forceful rhetorically speaking? Language is by definition expressive, so presumably they fit the bill perfectly. It adds perlocutive force, which is very important in conversational implicature.

    ¹Literal, on the other hand, may only convey the literal sense, so it seems.

  12. Bo

    Dictionaries “settle” usage issues as documents of currency. In that respect, they dictate. It sounds like you and I are on similar philosophical ground regarding the weight such should be afforded. The dictionary says that “biweekly” can mean twice a week, after all, when the word for that is “semiweekly.”

    I don’t agree with the hardline stand in the quote, which I included for comedy relief. Of course adverbs are useful. I am, however, careful about when I use one that is merely an intensifier, like “really” or “very.” (Or, in my view, how people use “literally” incorrectly.)

    (It was “very” that Dustin Hoffman’s character Sam was trying to persuade Spacey’s character to include in a report that prompted the quip.)

    No, I don’t like what has happened to “literally,” but I don’t have to play. “Orientate,” a thoroughly ridiculous word, has lexicographical traction, too. Does that make it “correct”? You say that the dictionary doesn’t dictate, but then turn around with “like it or not…,” etc. If it doesn’t dictate, then what is the force behind such a phrase?

    We all vote with our usage. Whether you find it reasonable or not, I immediately think less of a person’s skill with the language when s/he uses “literally” to mean “figuratively.” It’s an altogether senseless perversion, and my assessment of it as such is completely unaffected by whether that usage prevails.

    “Literally” is a precise and unambiguous word, without degree. No purpose, poetic or otherwise, is served by using it to mean its opposite.

  13. Of course we are free to use words however we want. If we don’t like a certain usage, we don’t have to use it. But there is no justification for saying that figurative use of “literally” is ungrammatical, or a misuse. It clearly isn’t. It’s just a use that some people don’t like.

    How else can we determine what words mean, other than by looking at how they are used?

  14. My like it or not is in reference to a statement of fact based on my (albeit presupposed) conclusions about regular usage, irrespective of correctness. I’m not appealing to the dictionary there in any shape or form.

    I think we more or less agree in all respects, except you remain hard-line on literally‘s ability to be figurative rather than, well, literal.

    I will agree though, that literally has, out of a number of meanings, a generally understood meaning of actuality that is seemingly at odds with non-actual expressions, but its usage demonstrates that a figurative sense is, and has been for a long time, quite acceptable.

  15. I’m just jumping in here to say that I get a geeky thrill to see you all going at it like this here. I learn so much from you all – thank you…

  16. Hi – la- ri- ous !!!
    I had a great laugh reading your post.

    Good luck going back to school!

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