Literally The Worst Thing Ever

Last night, my 12-year-old cried herself to sleep, heartbroken and inconsolable.

Nobody had died. Her parents hadn’t battled in a drunken rage. She hasn’t been reading Little Women. And no, there was no seventh-grade romantic melodrama afoot. It was just a case of lost innocence, more or less my fault. I don’t know what came over me. She’s still a little girl, yet I had told her something no child should have to reckon with:

“Literally” is now deemed an acceptable synonym for “figuratively.”

Yes, due to the nature of a living language in a constant state of mutation from idiom, dialect, neologism and plain misuse, a word can actually come to mean its opposite. God knows, when I first got the news a few months back I also reacted poorly. But now here was my precious punkin’ girl, her face buried in her pillow, sobbing as if the dog had gone to the farm.

The kid’s no crybaby. She has handled death, Santa-lessness and the Jonas Brothers’ breakup with equanimity. But she has been raised to believe there are rules -- rules that can’t be negated by simply breaking them over and over. The news about “literally” was not just linguistically nonsensical; it disrupted her sense of order. It made the world seem unjust, and unsafe.



As the Ghostbusters so eloquently put it: “Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes! The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!”

Crying over a dictionary entry. I’d say I’ve never seen anything like it, but that isn’t quite true. Twenty years ago, my eldest -- then a 6th grader -- was similarly horrified to learn that some Congressional Democrats would vote against NAFTA, despite believing it to be sound economic policy, so as not to lose the support of labor unions. To discover that political expediency trumped principle was more than she could bear. Tears flowed…over regional trade policy.

Back then, I tried to calm my child by explaining Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” of competing self-interest pushing the society and the economy haltingly forward, versus uncompromising ideological purity yielding the very political gridlock we are experiencing now. Last night, I took a similar tack, reminding my baby that much of the language every kid uses now would have so been considered vulgar or incorrect in very recent history….including that usage of “so” and the word “kid” for child.

Her reply, like her big sister’s in October 1993: “Wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

Truth be told, teachable-moment-wise, this episode had me ambivalent. A year and a half of co-hosting a linguistics podcast has liberalized my worldview, softened my prescriptive hard edges and generally muted my scolding nature. Seizing on others’ malapropisms and usage errors not only ignores the inherent malleability of language, it’s kind of obnoxious. Officious. Pedantic. Condescending. It had not escaped my attention that my adorable little girl, for all her wit and charm, was beginning to go all schoolmarm on her adorable little friends -- who surely were beginning to regard her as a pain in the middle-school ass.

On the other hand, I myself am a former child who was taught language rules described as immutable and unbending. They governed “fewer” versus “less”; “like” versus “as”; the proper use of the apostrophe -- all of which unbreakable rules as broken as casually as hangover promises. For my entire adult life I’ve flinched at “No shoe’s, no shirt, no service” and the Oxford comma and “irregardless” -- only to be told now not to sweat the small stuff. Once again, I’m sympathetic conceptually, but not viscerally. “Over a million people” and “alright” and “massive hole” still feel very wrong.

But parenting isn’t about revealing personal conflicts. It’s about knowing how to meter the slider between comfort and truth. For all intensive purposes, this was Santa Redux. And I failed. Poor kid. Her brain literally exploded.

31 comments about "Literally The Worst Thing Ever".
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  1. Patty Nolan from Nolan Creative Services, January 13, 2014 at 8:50 a.m.

    I am firmly on the side of Bob's daughter -- God bless her! However, as someone who had to suggest to her own daughter that other second grade children might not appreciate her adding a verbal "ly" to their adverbs, I do sympathize with Bob.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 13, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.

    Poor grammar hurts your ears, eyes and down to the gut.

  3. Lynn Taylor from Keiler & Company, January 13, 2014 at 11:18 a.m.

    Oops! There's no such phrase as "for all intensive purposes." The correct phrase is "for all intents and purposes."

  4. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, January 13, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.

    @Lynn Taylor

    Not an oops, Lynn. A joke. It's about language errors, so I threw in a malapropism.

  5. Al Cross from Inst. for Rural Jour. & Community Issues, January 13, 2014 at 11:26 a.m.

    I believe in a living language, but I also believe it should be consistent for the sake of understanding. That means we must object when a word is given a directly contrary meaning, or when a usage robs us of a unique word that has no replacement: "unique" itself being the best example. This is becoming the most-abused word in English because it is rarely used to mean "one of a kind," but it used when the speaker should be saying "distinctive," "special," "unusual," "remarkable" or some such adjective. Remember the word's Latin root and realize that we need to preserve it. That means not abusing it.

  6. Pete Healy from gyro, January 13, 2014 at 11:33 a.m.

    The increasingly rampant misuse of language is distressing. Sure, language evolves; and thank goodness there's so much room for creativity in its use. But creativity and ignorance are different things.

    If language is a tool for clear, effective communication, it seems that too many of us don't know or care which end of the screwdriver to hold. Ad copy that reads, "Food at it's [sic] finest," the TV personality who refers to "Myself and [Sally]" instead of "Sally and I," the commentator who uses "I could care less" to mean the opposite: ugh. We speak and write like knuckleheads.

    Even the most radical artists learned the rules of their art form before they started bending or breaking them. We seem to be indifferent to providing the same foundational skills. That's the sad reality - but, hey, whatever, man.

  7. Melissa Prince from INSP Television Network, January 13, 2014 at 11:33 a.m.

    GREAT post, Bob! As Wittgenstein so aptly quipped, "philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday."

  8. Jason Klein from Selligent, January 13, 2014 at 11:44 a.m.

    I want to live in a world where a seventh grader reacts so viscerally to grammar injustice. I can handle Rob Lowe pronounces "literally" as "littrally" on Parks and Recreation, but let's not change the meaning because people can't figure out how to use it. Thanks for the post, and hats off to your daughter.

  9. Scott Rackham from Brigham Young University, January 13, 2014 at 11:46 a.m.

    Thanks Bob! To your point, see part 1 of 4...

  10. Cece Forrester from tbd, January 13, 2014 at 12:39 p.m.

    Deemed by whom?

  11. Kelley Whalen from HY Connect, January 13, 2014 at 1:12 p.m.

    Literally the best post I've read in weeks : )

  12. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, January 13, 2014 at 1:15 p.m.

    used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.
    "I have received literally thousands of letters"

    Merriam-Webster: in effect : virtually

  13. Cece Forrester from tbd, January 13, 2014 at 1:25 p.m.

    I would like your daughter to know that as an intelligent person with standards, she may simply deem the correct usage of this word right back to the way it should be. I for one, will back her up.

  14. Cece Forrester from tbd, January 13, 2014 at 1:25 p.m.

    there was supposed to be a comma after I in the last sentence

  15. Richard Linnett from Bombastic, January 13, 2014 at 1:53 p.m.

    Hmmm, I'm skeptical Bobby. You literally made up that stuff about your daughter crying over linguistics just so you could frame your commentary in a clever way. Admit it. She was crying because you were doing what you do best, nagging.

  16. Barbara Lippert from, January 13, 2014 at 2:47 p.m.

    Oh, I feel for your daughter. I used to go all scold master (think Lucy) about grammar at a tender age and for some reason my schoolmates never appreciated it.
    Maybe agree to uphold standards under your own roof and tell her that outside the Bobosphere, other kids are free to speak that way without getting corrected-- just as they might choose to eat junk food?

  17. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, January 13, 2014 at 4:26 p.m.

    Great column, though.
    And if this were on Facebook, I'd click a Like on Barbara's comment

  18. Christina Ricucci from Millenia 3 Communications, January 13, 2014 at 6:09 p.m.

    My pet peeve is an even more backwards example of grammar abuse, and I hear it in one form or another almost every day: "Things are awkward between he and I" (instead of "awkward between him and me"); or "Dad gave copies to she and I" (instead of "Dad gave copies to her and me"). This almost always comes from persons 50+ (and at the corporate level!), which suggests that somewhere in 1960s America (fortunately I'm from the 1950s), a lot of school-age children either got very mixed up or were very poorly taught about double personal pronouns. Drives me crazy!

  19. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 13, 2014 at 6:54 p.m.

    I is the subjective case. Me is the objective case. Dad (subject) gave copies to me (objective). Take out the double objective and you will find the answer. First year of 9th grade Latin will cure you. The word following a preposition is the objective case (In Latin it could be the accusative or ablative or dative case, too. We have it so easy.)

  20. Esther Dyson from EDventure, January 13, 2014 at 9:16 p.m.

    This impacted me deeply (between you and I). ;)

  21. David Vossbrink from Retired, January 14, 2014 at 12:04 a.m.

    It's not a new complaint, but the reasonable response also is not new. See comment by Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 Cambridge lecture on "Style" in "On the Art of Writing" (the source for "murder your darlings):

    I hold it a sin against the light to put up a warning against any word that comes to us in the fair way of use and wont (as ‘wire,’ for instance, for a telegram), even as surely as we should warn off hybrids or deliberately pedantic impostors, such as ‘antibody’ and ‘picture-drome’; and that, generally, it is better to err on the side of liberty than on the side of the censor: since by the manumitting of new words we infuse new blood into a tongue of which (or we have learnt nothing from Shakespeare’s audacity) our first pride should be that it is flexible, alive, capable of responding to new demands of man’s untiring quest after knowledge and experience. Not because it was an ugly thing did I denounce Jargon to you, the other day: but because it was a dead thing, leading no-whither, meaning naught. There is wickedness in human speech, sometimes. You will detect it all the better for having ruled out what is naughty.

    The Oxford English Dictionary has not yet unfolded the last of its coils, which yet are ample enough to enfold us in seven words for every three an active man can grapple with. Yet the warning has point, and a particular point, for those who aspire to write poetry: as Francis Thompson has noted in his Essay on Shelley:—

    Theoretically, of course, one ought always to try for the best word. But practically, the habit of excessive care in word-selection frequently results in loss of spontaneity; and, still worse, the habit of always taking the best word too easily becomes the habit of always taking the most ornate word, the word most removed from ordinary speech.

    Now, according to our theory, the practice of prose should maintain fresh and comprehensive a poet’s diction, should save him from falling into the hands of an exclusive coterie of poetic words. It should react upon his metrical vocabulary to its beneficial expansion, by taking him outside his aristocratic circle of language, and keeping him in touch with the great commonalty, the proletariat of speech. For it is with words as with men: constant intermarriage within the limits of a patrician clan begets effete refinement; and to reinvigorate the stock, its veins must be replenished from hardy plebeian blood.

    In diction, then, let us acquire all the store we can, rejecting no coin for its minting but only if its metal be base. So shall we bring out of our treasuries new things and old.

  22. Gian Fulgoni from 4490 Ventures, January 14, 2014 at 12:14 a.m.

    History shows that grammatical disappointment isn't new and, so far, we have survived. I remember being half-shocked and half-amused when I learned that Winston Churchill was willing to compromise when he said: "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put"

  23. Dave Brody from Purch, January 14, 2014 at 8:54 a.m.

    In less PC times, this was called bastardization; literally spawning an orphaned language. But let’s not get all William Safire-d up at creative code switching. One can speak hip-hops, patois, pidgins… and yet write with literal competence. Or so I figure.

  24. Cece Forrester from tbd, January 14, 2014 at 10:30 a.m.

    All right, here's the hill I am prepared to die on: The proper em dash, as prescribed by the Chicago Manual, with not even tiny spaces around it (no offense to you AP folks). If you type it as it used to be rendered on a typewriter, two hyphens in a row, no spaces, Word will usually convert it for you. Keep in mind that my heroine, the "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" lady, is a Brit and their standard dashes are a bit different from ours. But check the author's preface to the American edition and you will see what's correct on this side. As for a single hyphen set off by full spaces, I don't care where you think you've seen it used--just don't do it!

  25. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, January 14, 2014 at 4:40 p.m.

    We would all do well to remember Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid's words:' "There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words."

  26. Paul Robinson from Viridian Development Corporation, January 14, 2014 at 5:59 p.m.

    I remember when one guy in a place I was at, said to someone else, "Let me explain this to you hypodermically." I knew what he meant, but I wanted to laugh at his malapropism.

  27. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, January 14, 2014 at 6:47 p.m.

    Ah, the curse of knowledge...once a thing is known, it cannot be un-known. I have no kids, so I am unsure of the ethics, but an attorney friend uses malaprops regularly in his correspondence to divert attention away from the things people should really care about. It's so effective, it should be illegal. A child that understands this has a tremendous edge over one that does not.

  28. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media, January 15, 2014 at 4:16 a.m.

    I literally weep with joy when I find myself in a market in which the Express lines are labelled, 12 Items or Fewer.

    It's the small things in life.

  29. Kevin Horne from Verizon, January 15, 2014 at 4:52 p.m.

    @Paul Robison: I think that guy was just trying to needle you.....

  30. Karen Ticktin from brandthis, January 15, 2014 at 5:10 p.m.

    It's like nails on a blackboard. Bet a big hug from daddy went a long way.

  31. Chuck Lantz from, network, January 15, 2014 at 5:14 p.m.

    "For all intents and purposes" ?

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