What, the English Language Changes? Literally?

Dare you use 'literally' when you mean 'figuratively'?

Dare you use ‘literally’ when you mean ‘figuratively’?

First, a somewhat related note – check out my story ‘One House, Six Decades – Three Generations’ on the new CBC Hyperlocal site. The CBC, our venerable old Canadian broadcaster (for those of you who aren’t Canadian and didn’t know), wanted stories of change from Canadians across the country – change in people and places, not the English language, but still interesting. Since I have the rare and fortunate position of living a house that’s seen three generations of my family, I wrote about the changes its seen throughout the years. Please check it out, like it, or share it! 

Okay, grammar matters. As a device for making our writing clear and readable, and our communication in general easier to understand, it is a necessary (though irritating) set of rules and regulations. Considering how Jane Austen’s writing throws me off every time she writes ‘surprize’ instead of ‘surprise,’ and how Shakespeare confuses me by using ‘nothing’ to mean gossip and rumours, I suppose it is good someone set out to systematize our language and standardize everything. While I reserve the right of writers to break those standards when necessary, I will admit a basic knowledge of grammar for most people does matter.

The problem comes in, however, when fans of English grammar try to impose useless rules on the rest of us. As linguists have long pointed out, knowledge of a language and its grammar has not merely been used throughout history as a way of improving communication between people, but also – more sinisterly – as a way to classify people. People who use ‘ain’t’ clearly must be less educated than people who don’t. People who split infinitives must be stupid and clueless. And so on. This results in some grammar rules that are just used as a stick to beat other people with – even when whatever people are writing is perfectly clear as it is. Worst of all, this mindset clings to the idea that there are some hard and fast rules of English out there, and when the changing language of English leaves this idea behind in the dust, its supporters merely howl, “But that’s wrong! You’re ruining English!”

I care because I love how English changes. I love how I can twist words and sentences to mean exactly what I want them to mean, ignoring whatever grammar rules might water this meaning down if I have to. So today, let’s look at two of the ways English is changing right before our eyes! First up, we have that wonderfully maligned word… ‘literally.’


Everyone knows people use ‘literally’ when they really mean ‘figuratively.’ ‘His head literally exploded!’ is a common example given to writers to drive home the point that using ‘literally’ in this way is wrong, wrong, wrong. Except… maybe it isn’t. As Jesse Sheidlower from Slate points out, ‘literally’ has been used in sentences like this since at least the 18th century. James Fenimore Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thoreau all used it, and no one noticed until the twentieth century or so, when someone had to add another example of ‘bad writing’ to their style book. Also, in the interests of clear communication – I think everyone except possibly the very newest speakers of English would understand ‘literally’ in this context doesn’t actually mean the guy’s head actually exploded. Maybe this rule just exists so thousands of internet commenters the world over can spend their days writing “the author used ‘literally’ wrong, she obviously can’t know what she is talking about…”
But as this use becomes more and more common, do you think we’ll see the day where it is grudgingly accepted by grammarists?

Using ‘They’ to mean ‘He or She’:

I’m a huge fan of this one, and I hope it gains acceptance soon! Even the most stringent grammarist will note there is no genderless pronoun to use in sentences like, “When I tell someone a joke they laugh.” You could say, “When I tell someone a joke, he or she laughs,” but that just ruins the flow of most sentences. And since everyone uses ‘they’ like this in casual conversation, it makes sense to use it this way in all writing except the most formal, academic manuscripts. In novels, you don’t want to jerk the reader out of the story, even if the combination of words you use is ‘right.’
On the positive side, many analyzers of the English language are giving into this as a natural evolution of English, as it fills an obvious void our language has.

Bonus English Language Change!

Lastly, I want to point out a new word the English language has generated in the last couple decades – not an accepted, official word by any means, but a useful, slangy word that will either rise to prominence or die the ignoble death of other slang terms such as ‘the bees’ knees.’ This word, of course, is lol. Lol, you ask? How can I bring up such a horrible example of textspeak?
Well, as Farhad Manjoo pointed out recently, it’s a wonderfully flexible piece of slang. It doesn’t actually, strictly, mean ‘laughing out loud,’ though everyone knows that’s what it stands for (and we use similar phrases such as, ‘it cost me an arm and a leg,’ without literally meaning it cost you that). Actually, apparently it signifies something more like ‘basic empathy’ between two people. It can mean That made me smile a bit. It can mean I hear you. It can mean I’m not ignoring you, I’m just not sure what to say to your comment. If it ever gets accepted into dictionaries as something other than colloquial speech, it’ll be a wonderful example of how humans invent useful words to put into conversations and get a new kind of meaning across.
That said, am I going to be the brave writer who uses lol in a new, literary way? At the moment, I have no plans to. Unless one of my characters is actually online or texting something, lol will remain at the sidelines of my stories. As it stands today, lol has not crossed the boundaries of the virtual world. A few people have used it in casual, everyday conversation, but they have been met with strong resistance. And until this word becomes a conversational word, I’m not sure it will ever be a literary one.
But who knows, the wonderfully chameleon language known as English may prove me wrong yet.

What’s your favourite change in the English language?


Filed under On Writing

4 responses to “What, the English Language Changes? Literally?

  1. You left out a “new” word that I have found is understood quite clearly all across the US and with what few Canadian friends I have: Y’all as the second person plural. When I first used that word in Chicago in the 60’s it required translation. Now I even hear non-southerners use it. db


    • Thanks for pointing that one out! It’s certainly understood in my part of Canada too, though not so commonly used. Still, when I try to explain to people who speak Portuguese that in English there is no plural form of ‘you’, they are quite surprised. ‘Y’all’ fills in this gap in English quite nicely!


  2. Pingback: How a Non-Existent Word Got in the Dictionary | Stories and Stuff

  3. Pingback: Do You Use ‘Alot’ A Lot? | Stories and Stuff

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