Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adventures with adverbs (1st of 3): literally

I almost never agree with the language police (hereinafter referenced as the "LP"), but I have to admit that literally in a nonliteral sense usually makes my left knee go numb. (I also have to admit that I used reference as a verb hoping that any LP reading this would get annoyed.)

Although I usually dislike nonliteral literally--and note that I haven't called it incorrect or made fun of those who use it, which should establish my non-LP bona fides--I'm not sure it's always inappropriate. I realized this when I read "Literally the most misused word" by Christopher Muther of the Boston Globe. Muther quotes Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and
Zimmer points to a recent quote by Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who said, "This is literally a dream come true, just like it is for everyone on this team."

"Thomas and his teammates didn't all 'literally' dream about winning the Stanley Cup and then wake up to find themselves acting out their dreams," Zimmer says. "He could have used another intensifier ('absolutely,' 'definitely,' 'unquestionably') to make the same point."

"Thomas and his teammates didn't all 'literally' dream about winning the Stanley Cup and then wake up to find themselves acting out their dreams"? And how does Zimmer know this? To me, it sounds utterly plausible. Zimmer throws in some nonsense about "acting out their dreams." But a dream of winning the cup, not necessarily predicting every play, sounds reasonable.

But let's assume for a moment that Thomas and the rest of the guys didn't literally (in the literal sense) dream of winning the cup. Even then, I think it's not implausible to think that in their waking hours they fantasized about it, or thought about how it would feel. If that's the case, what would be wrong with using literally here, even if it's nonliteral? We all know that words can be used figuratively--Muther uses ubiquitous nonliterally. Does literally have some special status that requires that it always be literal? For me, literally may require a higher standard than other words for its nonliteral use to annoy me, but Zimmer has chosen as his example a usage that is not only OK, but probably the best possible word in the context.

Here is Muther's statement about the literal truth of literally:
What the word means is "in a literal or strict sense." Such as: "The novel was translated literally from the Russian."
Taken together, the definition and the example make no sense. The combo suggests that "The novel was translated nonliterally from the Russian" means that it was translated neither in a literal nor in a strict sense. Is Muther saying that a nonverbatim translation (I assume that in the example literally means verbatim) is not a translation in a strict sense?

I'm not interested in trying to fix this. But I do find it much more troubling than the displeasing use of literally.

1 comment:

Warsaw Will said...

The problem with 'absolutely,' 'definitely,' and 'unquestionably' is that none of them have the power of 'literally'. These are all intensifiers and we often use intensifiers in a non-literal way - 'ridiculously expensive' etc.

In fact, 'literally' turns out to be a natural collocate with 'a dream come true'.

Google search:
literally a dream come true - 236,000
absolutely a dream come true - 104,000
definitely a dream come true - 290,000
unquestionably a dream come true - 4,700

And at the collocation finder Netspeak, literally is the third most common adverb modifier of 'a dream come true', behind 'truly' and 'really', but ahead of 'definitely'.