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Fighting for Literally

There is no escaping the maddening phrase literally like. An Internet search yields teeth-grinders like these: “Being there was literally like stepping back in time.” “Eating this steak was literally like eating dirt.” “Neymar literally flops like a fish out of water.”

The words in the phrase literally like don’t belong together—literally refers to objective reality, whereas like introduces an analogy, and all analogies are subjective.

We should limit literally to unadorned descriptions of what exists or happens—and exclude it from our interpretations or opinions. Style guides are unanimous on the topic of literally: the word should never refer to anything but verifiable facts. The truth of any statement containing literally must be clear and indisputable to every sane living being, whether it’s a baker in Yakima or a ballerina in Yakutsk.

In 1909, the writer Ambrose Bierce offered this example of literally abuse in his booklet Write It Right: “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” Bierce’s comment: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”

Why undermine so powerful a word as literally when alternatives are readily available? Many authorities recommend virtually, and in a perfect world, virtually would be the ideal substitute. It works fine as a replacement for literally in the first example in the first paragraph: “Being there was virtually like stepping back in time.” But too often virtually sounds fussy. Note how humbler words work better with the other two sentences above: “Eating the steak was really like eating dirt.” “Neymar actually flops like a fish out of water.”

Something else to bear in mind: literally is an adverb. Many writing instructors recommend purging adverbs from your writing wherever possible. (Mark Twain once said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”) Look again at the three original examples above. The adverb isn’t needed in any of them. Adding literally appears to be no more than an easy, lazy way to spice up three humdrum, cliché-heavy sentences. Roy H. Copperud addresses this ploy in his Dictionary of Usage and Style: “The habit of demanding that the reader be thunderstruck by commonplaces, which the meaningless use of literally exemplifies, is tiresome.”

No other word in English can quite say what literally says. That is why the fight to keep its authority uncorrupted is so important to us sticklers.

 

Pop Quiz

Is there a better way to say these sentences? Suggested solutions are below.

1. Literally nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word is literally the worst mistake you can make.
3. I literally died laughing and had to run out of the room.
4. These people must literally live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man literally fell to his knees and prayed.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Virtually nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word may be among the worst mistakes you can make.
3. I laughed so hard I had to run out of the room.
4. These people must live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man fell to his knees and prayed.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014, at 6:41 pm


Verbal Illusions

Today we’ll look at three perplexing sentences that are the verbal equivalent of optical illusions.

• Every man and woman has arrived. Why has? The phrase man and woman denotes a plural subject. Consider the following grammatically sound sentence: The happy man and woman have arrivedEvery and happy both function as adjectives that modify man and woman in these almost identical sentences. But every is so powerfully singular that it forces us to say has, despite the plural subject.

• More than one person was involved. Why was? Doesn’t more mean at least two? Yet there is no English scholar we know of who would change the verb to “were involved,” even though we would say, “More were involved than one person.”

Reference books do not offer much help with this conundrum, and the Internet is no help at all. But John B. Bremner’s Words on Words and Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer both address the topic. Bremner claims that more than is an adverbial phrase modifying the adjective one, “which is singular and therefore qualifies a singular noun, which takes a singular verb.” That explanation might fly in the rarefied air of academia, but to accept it we must ignore the inconvenient fact that more than one person means “two or more persons,” and would seem to require the plural verb were involved.

Bernstein doesn’t try to justify More than one person was involved as good grammar, just “good idiom.” He says “was involved” is an example of attraction, a linguistic term that accounts for certain incorrect word choices: “The verb is singular ‘by attraction’ to the one and to the subsequent noun [person].” Since “good idioms” often defy logic, we lean toward Bernstein’s interpretation.

• All but one ship was sunk. Another example of “good idiom.” The principles that apply to more than one also apply to all but one. If we separate all from but one, the verb becomes plural: Of the five ships, all were sunk but one.

One is free to endorse elaborate justifications for the validity of More than (or All but) one person was involved. But it is just as reasonable to conclude that this oddity is nothing more than institutionalized error—people have been saying it wrong for so long that we’ve become used to it, and More than one person were involved, the logical construction, sounds wrong. We see institutionalized error on the march today in ungrammatical usages like “each of them were here,” “neither of you are right,” and “a person should do their best,” all of which we suspect will be standard English in a decade or two, despite the anguished screams of purists.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, at 2:14 pm


Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III

See what you can infer from this sentence: When my three siblings and I entered the dark house, my brother, Marky, got scared. A careful reader would know instantly that the author had one brother and two sisters.

Why? Because of the commas surrounding Marky, which tell us that the brother’s name is nonessential. The commas enable the writer to say my only brother, whose name is Marky in three words.

Suppose the writer had entered the house with three brothers. In that case, my brother got scared would not tell us enough. With more than one brother involved, the sentence would have to say my brother Marky got scared—no commas. The absence of commas makes the brother’s name an essentialelement, and it is essential because without Marky we wouldn’t know which brother the writer meant.

Along the same lines: Mark Twain published his beloved book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” in 1876. The commas must go; the book’s title is essential. It is undeniable that Twain wrote more than one beloved book. Without commas the sentence would say what it means: that Twain wrote many beloved books, and Tom Sawyer is one of them. If the book’s title were nonessential, then Mark Twain published his beloved book in 1876 would not be such an inadequate sentence.

Here’s a comma gaffe many inexperienced writers make: The film features the world-famous actor, Robert De Niro. Delete the comma fencing off Robert De Niro. It mistakenly tells the reader that the actor’s name is nonessential—but the sentence makes little sense without De Niro’s name in it.

The terms wife and husband always require commas in sentences like this: My wife, Marie, enjoyed meeting your husband, Lucas. This is because we can have only one spouse at a time, so their first names are nonessential, supplementary information.

Note: The following sentence is an exception to the wife-husband rule above: Cuthbert Simms and wife Marie sailed to the Bahamas last weekend. No comma is called for because in that sentence wife is not a noun, but rather an adjective modifying Marie.

The rule for grandmother and grandfather is the opposite of the wife-husband rule. This sentence is correct without commas: My grandmother Bess thinks your grandfather Horace is a twit. Everyone has two biological grandmothers and two biological grandfathers, so the names Bess and Horace are essential information.

Punctuation proficiency is crucial to serious writing. Don’t take the humble little comma for granted.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct the following as needed.

1. Bertram’s wife Deluxa was late to the ball.
2. My only sister Julia left with husband Mike on their annual vacation.
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather, Otis, until this morning.
4. An actor, named Robert De Niro, showed great potential in his early film, The Wedding Party.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bertram’s wife, Deluxa, was late to the ball. (commas added; Deluxa is nonessential)
2. My only sister, Julia, left with husband Mike on their annual vacation. (commas added because Julia is nonessential; no comma after husbandbecause it is an adjective modifying Mike)
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather Otis until this morning. (no commas because Jaden and Otis are essential information)
4. An actor named Robert De Niro showed great potential in his early film The Wedding Party. (no commas because the actor’s name and the title of one of his early films are essential information)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 2, 2014, at 10:41 am


Nothing Is True Forever

Just about every week, GrammarBook.com receives emails like this: “My brilliant ninth-grade English teacher drilled into us that so-and-so, but now you say such-and-such.” The painful truth is that with each new generation the rules change.

If you were in high school in the 1970s, it’s a safe bet that your brilliant English teacher lectured you about the word hopefully. Forty years ago this word polarized America. People loved to say it, and language snobs loved to hate it. The veteran TV journalist Edwin Newman had a sign in his office that said, “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.”

Nobody claimed that hopefully was invalid—it was the way everyone used it that was unacceptable. The word’s strict meaning is “filled with hope,” as in Hopefully, I knocked on my true love’s door. But few used it that way. It came to mean “it is hoped that,” as in Hopefully, my dream will come true.

The authorities were up in arms for several reasons. For starters, hopefully became a fad word, like today’s awesome or amazing. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing it everywhere. The more people said it, the more grating and vapid it became.

Beyond that, language scholars saw hopefully as a cop-out—no more than a glib way of avoiding “I hope.” It’s intentionally unclear who is hoping in Hopefully, my dream will come true. The word just floats there, unattached. Are you saying the whole universe hopes your dream will come true? Are you really that special?

Those who weren’t there can’t know how passionately the sticklers despised hopefully. “Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications,” says writer Geoff Nunberg. The odd thing was that the same detractors had no objection to other “floating” adverbs, such as thankfully, happily, and frankly.

For decades the venerable Associated Press Stylebook said in its entry on hopefully: “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.” So imagine the surprise of many who opened the 2012 edition and found this: “The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Now, after all these years, the uproar is a dim memory, and the word is accepted in most quarters (although you will never see a floating hopefully in this space).

So much for that English teacher’s scolding in 1979. To the dismay of traditionalists, a language’s rules are bound to change when enough people refuse to obey them.

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Posted on Monday, July 21, 2014, at 10:25 pm


More Of

Earlier this month we observed some of the ways that little of can bring big trouble to students of English. Unfortunately, we aren’t done yet.

We previously discussed certain sentences in which the verb is derived not from the subject, but from the object of the preposition of. Here’s an example: She is one of those people who love to travel. Not loves to travel. The verb is determined by people, not by one.

Similarly, with many words that indicate portions—some, most, all, etc.—we are guided by the object of of. If the noun after of is singular, we use a singular verb: Some of the pie is left. If it’s plural, we use a plural verb: Some of the books are gone.

With collective nouns such as crowd or family, the speaker or writer has leeway since such words, though singular in form, denote more than one person or thing. Therefore, Most of my family is here and Most of my family are here are both grammatical sentences.

Other areas of concern:

• Off of  Drop of. Off of is not a valid phrasal preposition. In sentences like Keep off of the grass or You ought to come off of your high horse, the of adds nothing.

• Outside of  We stood outside of the building. Make it outside the building. In sentences indicating location, “of is superfluous with outside,” says Roy H. Copperud. His fellow English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein calls outside of “a substandard casualism.” With sentences where outside of is not literal, such as Outside of you, I have no one, there are better alternatives available, including except for, other than, besides, apart from, and aside from.

• All of  When a pronoun is involved, the of is essential, as in phrases like all of it and all of us. When a possessive noun is preceded by a or an, or has no modifier, again the of is required: all of a book’s wisdom, all of history’s lessons. But when a noun is preceded by an adjective or by the, it’s leaner and cleaner to drop the of in all of: all my books, all the lessons of history.

• Out of  The of is necessary; only bumpkins say Get out my house. Two notable exceptions: door and window—no of is needed in We hurried out the door or I stared out the window.

Couple of  The of stays. This includes phrases such as a couple of things, a couple of more things, a couple of hundred things. “Omitting the of is slipshod,” says Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Using couple not as a noun but as an adjective is poor usage.”

That’s enough of for a while. Amazing the confusion that one pint-size preposition can cause.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix any problems with of that you come across.

1. One of those trees that’s been around for over a century is standing just outside of the restaurant.

2. It’s a little place right outside of San Rafael, just off of Route 101.

3. He threw all of himself into making all Bonnie’s family comfortable.

4. I was looking out of the window as a couple dozen people rushed out the burning building.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. One of those trees that have been around for over a century is standing just outside the restaurant.

2. It’s a little place right outside San Rafael, just off Route 101.

3. He threw all of himself into making all of Bonnie’s family comfortable.

4. I was looking out the window as a couple of dozen people rushed out of the burning building.

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Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, at 3:49 pm