Another bit of writing wisdom

Avoid the misuse of literally! It is often (not) literally correct!..

The Montreal Gazette runs a column by Mark Abley on writing. This is one of my favourites, reprinted with his kind permission.

..”When the global oil companies run your country,” the B.C. columnist Murray Dobbin wrote a few weeks ago, “when they own your government, economic and environmental catastrophe are literally guaranteed.” I tend to share his sentiment, but I’d like to take up arms against his adverb. It would, I realize, be a futile battle – metaphorical uses of “literally” seem unavoidable. They can also be ridiculous. For sheer absurdity, it’s hard to top a recent statement by Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg: “It makes people so incredibly angry when you are getting up early in the morning – paying your taxes and then you see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax.”

Adverbs are slippery creatures. Many writers take care to avoid them as much as possible – adverbs often betray an insecurity that other words in a sentence aren’t pulling enough weight. In their classic book The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White observed that “It is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and colour.” Strunk and White went on to counsel readers, “Do not dress words up by adding -ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”

Dobbin and Clegg were using “literally” less as gaudy decoration than as an intensifier. In their thirst to make people agree with them, they resorted to statements that are short on literal sense. “Literal,” the adjective, means factual, actual, true in a down-to-earth way; it shares a common origin with “letter,” as in the phrase “the letter of the law.” By history and definition, “literally” should convey a similar idea. People who pay extraordinarily low rates of tax are literally in the same galaxy as you.

Yet that’s not how the word is often used – and has been for a couple of centuries. Broadcasters may be especially prone to saying “literally” when they mean the reverse, but some great novelists have been guilty of the same habit. Think of Mark Twain, who in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stated that “from being a poor povertystricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.” Or Vladimir Nabokov, normally a scrupulous stylist, who wrote in his novel Invitation to a Beheading, “And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.” Or Charles Dickens, who has a character in David Copperfield declare, “There is never a candle lighted in this house, until one’s eyes are literally falling out of one’s head with being stretched to read the paper.”

So if this is a vice you share, you’re in fabulous company. But remember: all three of those sentences would be improved by dropping the word “literally.”

Just over a year ago, an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear breakdown brought Japan close to catastrophe. How close? The answer is hard to grasp in common language, for much of the vocabulary of the nuclear industry is accessible only to a select few. In an excellent article in the New Yorker about the citizens of Fukushima, Evan Osnos described “an oppressive combination of stresses. People were drowning in jargon – sieverts and becquerels and half-lives – at the very moment that they were trying to make decisions about their family’s health.” At times like that, it’s essential for the media to make sure technical data are conveyed to the public in comprehensible terms. Government and industry officials find it easy to hide behind statistics and polysyllables; they know that if jargon sounds authoritative, it’s also tough to challenge. This is true in all languages and all capital cities.

Osnos performed good work when he subtly showed readers the value of a typical unit of measurement. “A machine that looked like an oversized parking meter,” he wrote, “flashed a real-time radiation reading in large red digits: 7.71 microsieverts – 8.12 – 7.57. Being there was equivalent to receiving a chest X-ray every twelve hours.” Most Japanese people, amid such a crisis, would not have needed to know the precise meaning of a microsievert. But it would have been important for them to have a solid basis for comparison, for understanding, for making inert facts spring to life in the mind.

No, I don’t mean that literally.

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