The Atlantic magazine recently took aim at the term literally, and in so doing dredged up the pet peeves of those of us who are word policers. (By the way, my Word for Mac dictionary doesn’t think there is such a word as “policers.” “Do you want to add it to your dictionary?" it asks derisively.)
The proclaimed travesty, sparking outrage among literary magazines and blogs since its occurrence, is that Google added as an alternate definition of literally, “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.” Atlantic writer Jen Doll claims that this employment of literally when figuratively is meant began centuries ago, but it remains a classic today.
Honestly, I’m not bothered as much about that term as with a couple of grammar errors. The improper use of lie versus lay and I versus me are my top peeves. I don’t make any friends when I point out that present tense lay requires a direct object, such as “I lay my purse beside the table.” When someone is going to lie down and says she’s going to “lay down,” I’m tempted to ask what she plans to lay — an egg? But I usually refrain.
The nursery prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” illustrates this direct object point as well as the I/me one. I is a sentence’s subject while me is the object, or couched in a prepositional phrase. I’m afraid these usages are so far gone as to be irredeemable. But does it matter?
Language is, after all, a way to convey meaning. I love the beauty of finding the perfect word to convey nuanced meaning. If bad grammar or “derived usage” reduces one’s ability to communicate accurately, then our language and we are the poorer for it. If the new wording makes communication more flexible or precise, the derived usage may be justified.
Steven Pinker, a Harvard language expert and psychology professor, goes further: “The norms of language emerge by a self-adjusting consensus.” In other words, sustainable language is what works for people.
My dad’s grammatical pet peeve is ending sentences with a preposition. I remember his soliloquy about this at the dinner table decades ago. He finished with this admonition, which I still don’t know if he intended: “People who end sentences with prepositions should be thrown the book at!”
Formal language can go too far, however, as happened to me last week. I got a call from Happy’s Auto Body, which did a great job repairing a decade’s worth of small dents and scratches. They also detailed my car, but neglected to replace the floor mats. They called right away. “Sorry, we have your mats,” the receptionist apologized, “and some personal items from the trunk.”
Personal items? I blanched at the thought that I could have left a stash of forbidden chocolate and potato chips, my handwritten list of passwords or my husband’s athletic underwear. The personal items turned out to be grocery bags, a visor, and assorted pens and coins. Those are properly called “stuff.”
— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.