A bar worth frequenting

It’s the dive bar Continental in the East Village of New York, and it has a new policy, stated in the window.

The owner says it’s not that serious: he won’t literally throw people out if they use the l-word. But he’s a language maven:

The notice has been hanging there for five or six days, says Trigger Smith, the owner of the decades-old neighborhood dive. He admits the policy is tongue-in-cheek, but really does hate that word. (For that matter, he’s also no fan of phrases like “It’s all good,” “You know what I’m saying?” and “My bad”), but literally gets special loathing because of its ubiquity. “Since it’s English, it’s probably happening in England, and maybe Australia,” he tells Grub Street. “I had a woman from Miami the other night tell me it’s happening down there,” he says. “And it’s not just millennials. Now you hear newscasters using ‘literally’ every three minutes on the Sunday news shows. What’s annoying is people aren’t even aware they’re saying it. How could you be so unaware of your words that it’s coming out every couple minutes?”

As I read this, I thought of another phrase I don’t like: “To be honest. . . “.  When someone says that to me, and they’re a friend, I’ll stop them and ask, “You mean that you’re usually not honest with me?”

If that sign isn’t enough to lure you to 25 Third Avenue, at St. Marks Place, they also offer six shots of anything for $12.


  1. Mike Anderson
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    To be honest, it doesn’t bother me when words and phrases evolve from their prior definitions and purposes.

    It’s been going on since the invention of language. Literally.

    • Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Nice knowing ya.

    • Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I know what you mean but if the word seems misused at a certain time and place and context, we should call attention to it. Language evolves but I’m against deliberate alteration of the genome.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think “literally”, as used above, is an example of deliberate alteration. It’s literally just an example of shifts in usage that happen over time. It annoys the hell out of many people, including me, but it “just happens”.

        Attempts to deliberately alter language use don’t seem to fare well. Witness, “zir” and other attempts to de-gender pronouns. How’s that going for the advocates?

        • Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          I was referring to us letting incorrect usage pass. It’s a judgement call, obviously. Sometimes a new use of a word seems right but other times it is just a mistake. We shouldn’t just assume every incorrect use is evolution of the language. No reason to help the language evolve unnecessarily.

          A pet peeve of mine is the recent hijacking of Dawkins’ “meme” to mean an internet image with some pithy saying. I’ve tried to use it in its original usage and been asked, “Where’s the image? I didn’t see an image.”

          • GBJames
            Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

            I think the “correct” way to view all of these “incorrect” usages is that they are mutations in the linguistic genome. Some of them die out (most of them, probably) but some catch on and spread. They are, indeed, examples of Dawkins’ memes.

            As it happens, the “memes” meme has evolved!

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

            “We shouldn’t just assume every incorrect use is evolution of the language.”

            Nor should be assume that every usage we disapprove of is “incorrect”. If a particular usage is reasonably common and unproblematically understood by both speaker and listener, that’s the only legitimate criterion of “correctness” — whether or not the dictionary has caught up with it.

            • Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

              So when someone says “aks” instead of “ask”, I should think that’s ok because I know what they mean? I’m not saying that I would necessarily correct them. That’s a separate issue. I also realize that aks vs ask is about pronunciation vs meaning but the two are analogous.

              I guess my thinking is that a language where anything goes is a pretty poor language. Even if we draw the line at understanding between participants in a conversation, this would include situations where one thinks they understand the other but actually do not. There is a reason we learn proper English in school and that reason is still valid after graduation.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

                What you’re calling “proper English” is just one slice out of a vast spectrum of regional and social variants. It happens to be the one that academics and intellectuals use to communicate with each other, and that’s why it’s taught in schools. And if you want to communicate effectively in that sphere, you’d do well to learn it.

                But that doesn’t mean that everyone who grows up speaking a different variant is Doing It Wrong. People who pronounce “ask” as “aks” are correctly reproducing the speech of their social group, even if it happens to differ from that of your social group. (Note that even “proper” English is rife with words pronounced differently than they’re spelled; consider “answer” and “Wednesday”.)

                The idea that there’s one-and-only-one “correct” form of English is just factually wrong, as wrong as saying there’s only one right way to have sex. The right form is the one appropriate to your social context of the moment, and people — even academics and BBC newsreaders — code-shift between different forms all the time.

              • Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

                All that’s fine but, unless you are willing to allow absolutely anything to pass as English, the line has to be drawn somewhere. That’s all I am saying. People are free to invent their own language but that comes with consequences, ones that may well concern those same people (or their parents and teachers). Regional usage and pronunciation is fine too until those folks visit other parts of the English-speaking world and want to make themselves understood.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

                It depends on what you mean by “the line has to be drawn”. We can certainly discern lines between naturally-occurring variants of English, much as we do between biological species. But that’s a process of observation and description.

                If what you mean is that there has to be an authority empowered to draw arbitrary lines and enforce them, then no, there doesn’t. Language users have been getting by just fine without such authorities for millennia.

              • Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

                No authority, just recognition that is a distinction worth making.

              • Jenny Haniver
                Posted January 26, 2018 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

                That’s not a good example because, when “ask” vs “axe” is invoked, there is usually a subtext about African American and grammatical ability; the assumption being that “ask” is the correct word, while “axe” is an “incorrect” dialectal word that shows linguistic ignorance, slovenliness and inattention, even perhaps inability to master “proper” grammar.

                First of all, I have heard both white and black people who are from the south, or whose families have come from the south, say “axe.”

                Secondly, historical linguistics establishes that “axe” has been a viable alternative to “ask” at least since Chaucer’s time https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/03/248515217/why-chaucer-said-ax-instead-of-ask-and-why-some-still-do.

              • merilee
                Posted January 26, 2018 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

                To me, saying aks is just lazy, like some Canadians’ pronouncing asphalt ashphalt.

              • Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                I agree and I would be perfectly happy replacing my “aks” example with the Canadian’s “ashphalt”. Regardless, my point is not about specific mistakes.

              • Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

                I know about the subtext and I should probably find a better example. Hopefully, that subtext should not distract from the point I’m making here. Substitute your favorite, less loaded example and let’s move on.

              • Skip
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                Linguist John McWhorter discusses the where “aks” comes from here at about 41′ in:


                Slaves learned it from people from the British Isles that they worked with. Prior to that, it goes back 1200 years.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                Sure. If we want to keep “aks”, then I suggest we encourage all English speakers to say the word that way and adjust the spelling to either “axe” or “aks”.

                But seriously, it is fine for the language to evolve in useful ways. A word’s meaning changes in nuance over time. This is probably more a rule than an exception. Take the word “computer”, for example. Before the invention of computing machinery, it referred to human calculators. This change makes sense.

                Obviously what new usage is considered good vs bad (to be charitable, “mistaken”) is a judgement call. All I am suggesting is that it is worth making such judgements.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

                “I suggest we encourage all English speakers to say the word that way”

                Paul, once again you seem to be implying that there can be only one “correct” way to speak English, and that the variants spoken by different ethnic groups or social classes are therefore incorrect or illegitimate.

                Elsewhere you concede that language change is permissible so long as it’s moderated by a “consensus of intelligent and knowledgeable people”. It’s hard to read this as meaning anything other than “educated people of my social class”. It ignores the reality that uneducated people of merely average intelligence are nevertheless as expert in their native variant of English, and as competent to drive change in it, as you are in yours.

                The common thread is your insistence that there must be some sort of explicit standard to which speakers of “proper” English consciously conform their speech. But that gets it exactly backward. Real language is organic and fluid, with rules that are internalized and largely subconscious. It evolves by consensus, but it’s a consensus in which anyone may participate; no credentials of IQ, education, or social class are needed.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                I never said anything about “one correct way to speak English”. I also didn’t say ‘language change is permissible so long as it’s moderated by a “consensus of intelligent and knowledgeable people”’. Finally, I said nothing about “social class”. Please stop with the straw men.

                I think the problem here is that you (and perhaps others here) believe that whatever anyone says, it is always “good language”. This implies that no mistakes can be made. In fact, it removes the very possibility of mistakes. Is this your position?

                “It evolves by consensus, but it’s a consensus in which anyone may participate; no credentials of IQ, education, or social class are needed.”

                I do agree with this statement, though IQ and education are useful in winning language arguments. However, such consensus doesn’t always have to be silent assent, right? That’s pretty much all I am saying.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

                “Is this your position?”

                Of course not; see my previous comment about “rules that are internalized and largely subconscious”. Where there are rules, there’s the possibility of violating them. Examples include slips of the tongue and other production errors, misnegations, malapropisms, and idiosyncratic usages that are misunderstood even within the speaker’s peer group.

                The point is that different linguistic groups have different rules, and the (well-formed) speech of one group cannot legitimately be judged by the rules of another. Most of what you’re calling “mistakes” (such as “aks” for “ask”) seems to fall into this category, and that’s what we’re objecting to.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

                “it is worth making such judgements”

                I don’t understand this perspective. Language change is like the tides. It just happens. Making judgements about it is as useful as passing judgement on tidal cycles.

                Then again, I suppose, the same is true of judging linguistic change. None of us can help doing it once we’ve been around long enough to get comfortable in old familiar patterns.

                And, no, free will does not exist. 😉

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

            I find it fascinating the way “meme” has become such a part of pop culture. Its common use is pretty much aligned with its original meaning, so it doesn’t bother me.

            • Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

              Except now it has a meaning which involves a deliberate attempt, which was crucially *not* present in the original usage.

          • James Walker
            Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

            If language usage was about “correctness” we’d all still be speaking Old English. Or Proto-Indo-European 😉

            • Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              No way! I didn’t say the language should be fixed, just that there has to exist correct and incorrect usage or all hell breaks loose.

              • James Walker
                Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

                And who decides what’s correct and incorrect?

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

                The consensus of intelligent and knowledgeable people, as with most things. No one here is suggesting we install a “language czar”.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

                How does one define “intelligent and knowledgeable”?

                Answer: by their use of proper language 😉

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                Yes! That’s certainly one part of being intelligent and knowledgeable.

              • Skip
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink

                I recommend watching John McWhorter again here:


                About 7 minutes in he notes that the meaning of most words in most languages change over time. The exceptions are articles, words for family members, et al. So yeah, it’s perfectly normal for “all hell to break loose” and for people to not speak like you.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

                I never suggested language shouldn’t change, just that we be aware of mistakes and correct them when appropriate. I can’t believe how many commenters here engage in throwing up strawman arguments.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

                “The consensus of intelligent and knowledgeable people…”

                For the purposes of language management, such a body doesn’t exist and is unlikely ever to exist.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                Please stop with the strawmen. No one suggested any “body”, just the informed, intelligent judgement of individuals.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

                No “body”? Then how do you expect to gain consensus?

                We all have our linguistic pet peeves. Some of recognize them as being futile annoyances.

                You’re concerned that all hell will break out. But it won’t. It never has despite language having always changed and it having annoyed everyone (in different ways) while it changed.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

                The consensus as to proper language occurs organically for both sides of any debate, both reasonable language changes and mistakes. My point here is that allowing language change does not imply we have to agree with all changes made by all people.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                It’s the level of agreement that makes a language useful, but it’s agreement within a group.

                The level of agreement within a certain group might have very little to do with the level of agreement within another group.

                The dialect most useful at Harvard is not the most useful dialect on a military submarine.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

                Agreed. And the groups often intersect. I suppose if a group is isolated for long enough, a new language may result. Long live evolution of all kinds!

              • GBJames
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                Of course, none of us has to agree. Nor does anyone have to agree on whether we like this or that change in the weather.

                Agreement, or not, is pretty much irrelevant. (Although complaining about the rain might make us feel somewhat better.)

                Concepts like “the line has to be drawn somewhere” make little sense to me. It implies an ability to alter the tides of language changes you don’t happen to like.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

                Your analogy with the rain is flawed. We can’t influence the rain, only accept it. On the other hand, with language we are all participants. So, yes, you do have the “ability to alter the tides of language changes you don’t happen to like.” You are not guaranteed to be successful but you can add your two cents worth. This is what I am advocating.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 27, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                Good luck with that. Do check in when you’ve succeeded.

              • Posted January 27, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

                The last word.

  2. Merilee
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I had a neighbor who used to say “To be honestly truthful” all the time, like, literally😬

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      That wouldn’t be Trump? No, he constantly says believe me. You can’t.

      • Merilee
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink


  3. GBJames
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Six shots of anything? Do they have any of Highland Park 25 year old scotch in stock?

    • Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      I doubt it, not if they say “anything”. Or maybe they mean “any well-drink liquor”.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        And I was about to book my flight. 😉

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Figured you folks in the badger state to be familiar with the concept “dive bar.”

    • darrelle
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      That was pretty much my first thought too.

  4. glen1davidson
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    That is literally the worst.

    I can’t even. Literally.

    Glen Davidson

  5. Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Literally is one of Ken Ham’s favorite words – yet another reason for an embargo on the word!

    • rickflick
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      fundagelicals have a special meaning of their own for “literally”.

  6. Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink


  7. Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    You know what bugs me? When people begin sentences with “Sorry, but…”. They usually are not. Just like this guy.

  8. Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    The most overused word in the English language is ‘absquatulate’.

    As soon as someone uses that word, I’m out of there.

    • Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      HA!!!!! I LOL’d!

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      🙂 Always abjure “absquatulate,” is my new motto.

      • Merilee
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        And eschew obfuscation.

  9. Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Is the issue that the word is used unnecessarily or that it is used incorrectly? Or both?

  10. Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Love this initiative!

  11. kategladstone
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Since the world has been misused since the 17th century — https://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/mar/12/reality-check-literally-wrong-use-word — the new policy is coming rather late.

    • danstarfish
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

      That was an interesting article. The tidbit I found interesting was that although it had been used as an intensifier throughout the 19th century, the objections to that usage seemed to start in the early 20th century.

      Despite being intellectually OK with the use of literally as in intensifier, one of the examples did make me laugh:

      … the TV celebrity Ulrika Jonsson, when talking about the Swedish system of child custody after divorce, said that they “literally will split the child in half to live one week with the mother …”

      • Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        That method of deciding custody has a very long history. It’s literally biblical (1 Kings 3).

    • revelator60
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

      The fact that some people in the past also misused the word doesn’t ultimately matter, since if the misuse was truly widespread then “literally” would have slipped into near-total misuse long ago. The descriptivists also haven’t considered whether misuse of the word has risen greatly in more recent times, thus meriting complaints from people concerned the word’s richer meaning will be lost if no one speaks up. Those who care about precision in language are rightly concerned about the sloppy usage which increasingly degrades useful words such as “literally.”

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        If you reject the evidence of actual historical usage patterns, then on what basis (apart from your own intuition) do you decide what constitutes “misuse”?

        Also, how does restricting a word to only one meaning make it “richer”?

        • Posted January 27, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          I think we should reject usage patterns that are no longer current, especially ones that haven’t been used for centuries. How do you judge proper use? The consensus of intelligent and knowledgeable people, like most things. I don’t think anyone here is suggesting we should have language laws.

          At the risk of misinterpreting revelator60’s comment, the assumption is that most language mistakes are due to ignorance of a word’s meanings. (Yes, a word can have multiple meanings. No one is suggesting otherwise.) by objecting to misuse, we are informing of the richness of the word’s actual proper usage. This makes the recipient richer in knowledge and, hopefully, in quality of future speech.

          In short, knowledge transfer not authoritarianism. The recipient has the right to ignore the advice.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I feel him.

  13. Posted January 26, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    the words that get under my skin are “impact” in contexts other than teeth or collisions and, worst of all, “impactful”. Oy.

    • Merilee
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      I hate the overuse of impact, especially as a verb. What ever happened to “affect”? Some otherwise quite bright talking head on the news last night used the word 3 or 4 times in maybe 2 minutes.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think “affect” was impactful enough.

        • Merilee
          Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

          Like, literally😬

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        I’ve grown accustomed to hearing “impact” as a verb, though I wouldn’t use it. “Impactful,” never — or at least not until there’s an incoming asteroid or comet.

  14. Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    ‘To be honest’ really means ‘I don’t want to have to say this but…’

    It’s less about making a truth-statement as making an apology for something.

    ‘To be honest, I don’t really like the new wallpaper’.

    ‘To be honest, I think it’s a waste of time but the rules are the rules’

    • James Walker
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      That reminds me of an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, in which the characters make a similar observation about “Having said that, …”

      • Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

        Yes, “Curb” is a good show for language nerds and mavens.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      In New York, especially the outer boroughs, “not for nothing” is used to similar effect.

      “Not for nothin’, Vinnie, but that suit looks like crap.”

  15. davidintoronto
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    A “contronym” is a word that has two diametrically opposite meanings. Examples include dust, moot, fast and sanction. And some folks claim that common usage now puts “literally” in the contronym category.

    I don’t agree. Indeed, my head figuratively explodes at the thought.


    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      “Cleave” is my favorite contronym.

    • Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Also, “quantum leap”.

  16. Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    The phrase that causes me to literally cringe is center of excellence, especially when used by governmental bodies.

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Our Dear Leader in the White House frequently resorts to the phrases “Honestly, …” and “to tell you the truth.”

    Res ipsa loquitur.

    • Peter N
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      And “Believe me…”. Nope, that ship has sailed.

  18. danstarfish
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why people get so worked up when “literally” is used as an intensifier, but are completely fine when “really” is used as intensifier.

    They are used in similar ways and both can be auto-antonyms, yet only one of them gets people upset.

    • danstarfish
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      I thought about this a little more and realized that for “really”, auto-antonym cases are extremely rare and I can’t easily think up an example.

      For “literally”, auto-antonym cases are fairly common. It is still interesting that people that people are fine with all the other intensifiers, but single out “literally” as something to hate.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        I find an interesting example of language evolution is the word “prove”. It used to mean “test”, not “verify”. This explains why so many people misunderstand two proverbs: “The proof of the pudding is in the eaating.”* and “Exceptions prove the rule.”

        In both of those adages, if you replace the word “proof” with “test” they make much more sense in the present day. The only instance I can think of in which “proof” retains its original meaning is in the phrase “proving ground”.

        Language change is something that happens. How many modern English speakers can read Beowulf, or, for that matter, The Canterbury Tales without instruction? The advent of printing brought standards that tended to retard language change, and if we expect out distant descendendants (if they survive) to understand what we have to leave them, stability is to be favored over change.

        *Often misquoted as “The proof is in the pudding.”

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s because “literal,” unlike “real,” has a distinct meaning not readily filled by other words. For the same reason, I wouldn’t be pleased if “figuratively” began to be used to mean its opposite.

        I’ve no problem with words changing meaning, or language otherwise evolving, but prefer that it happen for a purpose — to fill a need, or to add precision, or at least to give pleasure.

    • Posted January 26, 2018 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      Why use ‘really’ or ‘literally’ as an intensifier when we have perfectly good swear words?

      • merilee
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 6:48 pm | Permalink


  19. eedwardgrey69
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I strongly dislike the false use if literally, but they ban EVERY use of it. Including its use in sentences like: “If you think being the owner of a bar gives you the right to tell my how to speak, I will LITERALLY leave without paying you, you moron.”

  20. E.A. Blair
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    On one hand, I have a degree in linguistics, which brings me to the prescriptive side – anything goes to facilitate communication between two people. On the other hand, I also have a degree in English grammar, which brings me to the proscriptive side – that certain things are acceptable while others are abominable.

    Finally, I have my pet peeves, which are things I personally hate. The list is long, and when I taught college composition, I handed out a list of my peeves with an explanation that using those terms would not affect my grading of the students’ work, but also that I would not hesitate to consider it “sloppy writing” (if I marked something as “sloppy” I did not take that into account when grading, but I did want them to know I disapproved).

    Whenever I had a new class of students, the first reading assignment was George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language and I made it clear that Orwell’s rules were mine as well.

    Of course I’m getting old and curmudgeonly (I consider that a legitimate construction – converting a noun to an adverb), and I am often accused of being a grammar Nazi. However, my work in linguistics helps me to appreciate features that some languages have that others could use.

    There is, for example, a linguistic feature called evidentiality, which, in languages that exhibit it, mark words (usually verbs) with tags that indicate the source and veracity of the statement. In some languages, you can tell, from the form of the verb, whether what you are being told is a result of direct observation, inference or common kowledge. In languages that have strong evidentiality, it becomes (dare I say literally) ungrammatical to lie. I sometimes wonder what would happen to US politics if we shifted our political discourse to a language that has strong evidentiality markers.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      As much as I hesitate to gainsay someone with a linguistics degree :), isn’t it the “prescriptive” side that says certain things are verboten — and the side concerned with communication, the “descriptive”?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      As a linguist and grammarian you’re presumably aware that Orwell violates his own rules in that very essay.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted January 28, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        And as you know yourself, Orwell provides a sixth rule that it is better to break any of the previous five rules than to say something outright barbarous. Beaver’s ‘take down’ of this rule strikes me as pretty ludicrous and trying much to hard to be clever.
        I certainly wouldn’t advocate slavishly following either Orwell’s or Strunk and White’s rules but I’d suggest that it hurts no-one to read them and think about what what kinds of writing habits obscure meaning and which enhance it.
        It is exceedingly improbable that great novels (still less poetry!) will be written (oh no! the passive voice!) by following anyone’s rules but writers of mediocre ability may be assisted in achieving more clarity in reports and other workaday texts through being given some guidelines as to the sort of things that tend to make texts harder and less enjoyable to read.

  21. Steve Pollard
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it is overused and irritating. But it could be worse. One of my favourite writers on English usage, Sir Ernest Gowers, cites this line from a cowboys-and-Indians penny-dreadful:

    “Dick, hotly pursued by the scalp-hunter, turned in his saddle, fired and literally decimated his opponent”.

    Wrong on so many levels!

    My own current bugbear is the unnecessary number of people who seem to start every sentence with “So…”

    • Merilee
      Posted January 28, 2018 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      So maybe the bullet holes accounted for, like, literally 10% of the guy’s body??

  22. Curt Nelson
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like the explanation that these things are okay because language evolves.

    The trouble is that “literally” has a particular meaning that the evolved usage ruins.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      See kategladstone’s comment at #11. The meaning of “literally” never was limited to what you think it ought to mean. The alleged linguistic purity of yore is a figment.

  23. Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Yeah… lol… “virtual” means “not real”. That bugs me.

  24. Dave137
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    No, no. The worst word now in use is “basically”.

    Well, basically…
    It’s basically…

  25. E.A. Blair
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I will take it upon myself to go to the Continental and say, in hearing of the owner, “I literally become enraged when I hear the word ‘literally’ misuded!”

    would his head figuratively explode?

  26. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read up on the bar & the deal now is indeed six shots for $12, but you MUST buy a beer for $5 to get access to the shots deal. Lots of one-star , sometimes unintentionally hilarious, re heavy-handed bouncers & ‘discriminatory’ dress code [no saggy jeans or hoodies]. The website for the Continental is a treasure with tabs explaining the ‘Door Policy’ & other long screeds from Trigger Smith the owner for 30 years or more. WEBSITE HERE

    They used to have bands like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop & the Stooges on the stage at the back near the toilets, but now it’s just a jukie.

    Trigger Smith reports the last day of trading is Saturday June 30th, 2018 – the corner is being razed for boutique offices…

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Oh & they got ‘sued’ in recent years, more than once, for discrimination [Commission of Human Rights], with “no probable cause” results. I expect the local gentrification & weird customer-always-right attitudes have something to do with this [one of the house roolz is the “Customer’s always wrong”].

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      They ain’t makin’ ’em like Iggy & the Stooges anymore, that’s for sure, Michael. One of my favorite pieces of rock’n’roll writing is this one about the Stooges by Lester Bangs.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 26, 2018 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Elemental grouping of drugged, self-destructive loons – loved ’em. I’m going to read the link later tonight [I’m a night owl & have the tab open] & will report back.

        Everything worthwhile IMO is in The Stooges’ first three albums [up to the Bowie-mixed Raw Power] – I don’t rate Iggy Pop’s subsequent solo career – lyrics pedestrian & lacking the original bands primitive, nuclear bomb approach to playing their instruments!

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 26, 2018 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I’m a night owl, too (and do a lot of my reading then). So was Lester Bangs. If you haven’t read much of his stuff, a great place to start is with his obit for Elvis, “Where were you when Elvis Died?”. Enjoy.

  27. Posted January 26, 2018 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I think actually is even more annoying.

  28. Posted January 26, 2018 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I used to meet friends there 5 or 6 years ago occasionally, but we never stayed too long since it was overrun with NYU students. I’m not surprised that he would hear “ literally” every five minutes.

  29. Posted January 26, 2018 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    My favorite is when the word “literally” is used to mean “not-literally”, as in “I was so tired I was literally dead.”

  30. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    The obvious question to ask here at WEIT is do you get thrown out if you say “I literally believe the Bible”? 🙂

    Actually, Random House reports that
    “Since the early 19th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”….The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs.”

  31. Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I know it’s 2018, and nobody cares about what’s true, but here I go anyway . . .

    There’s literally nothing right about this sign. “Annoying” is subjective, of course, but “overused” is demonstrably false. Even when compared to the words it’s not supposed to be synonymous with (according to prescriptivist thinking), such as “really” and “actually,” its rate of use is an order of magnitude lower:


    Perhaps it isn’t fair to take people at their word, and that the bar owner really is just expressing personal frustration, but I feel compelled to point out that there is an actual matter-of-fact about language, and that there are things which are true about it, and things which are false, and that we shouldn’t confuse them, nor use that confusion as an excuse to admonish others.

    • Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Hmm. I suppose you should disregard that first “not.” Prescriptivists would presumably *want* “literally” to only ever be synonymous with “really” (in its original sense) and “actually.”

    • Posted January 28, 2018 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      Something else that might be worth pointing out as, well, utterly wrong: the phrase “Kardashianism.” As Mark Liberman at Language Log points out, in spite of the apparent assumption that women make use of this word more than men, the opposite is true:


      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 28, 2018 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

        I’m entering out-of-touch-old-geezerdom phase – “Kardashianism” was off my radar until this post. But I’m resigned to my ignorance, keeping up with the cool kidz just ain’t worth the hassle.

        *Thinks* I need new carpet slippers.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 6:55 am | Permalink

        How about the assumption that to be a “Kardashian” is to be female.

        • Posted January 29, 2018 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

          This might be a fair point, but realistically, the only two names that pop into my head when I hear “Kardashian” are “Kim” and “Chloe” (I have no idea who they are, but I believe those are the individuals being alluded to when people speak of the Kardashians? I’m not especially pop-culturally savvy). Pair that up with a more general tendency to pick on (consciously or otherwise) women’s speech styles rather than men’s, and you have yourself a strong case.

  32. Stanislaw Pak
    Posted January 26, 2018 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    I am particularly triggered by overuse of “like” and “you know” phrases in every second sentence.

  33. Posted January 26, 2018 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Using “literally” to mean “figuratively” is literally the opposite of what “literally” means.

  34. Moregain
    Posted January 27, 2018 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    Here in the UK we can’t escape “basically.” Many people inject this at the beginning of almost everything they say.

  35. Posted January 30, 2018 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I try to edit my speech in the same way I edit my writing: Remove all the dross. These phrases and words are pure dross, in essentially every situation. (“Literally” can have a useful place in some (few) sentences.)

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