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NewsYou Don't Say

Literal-minded

Barack Obama

Gather around, little ones, so that Mr. John can explain to you why some people will think that you are stupid.

There is a word, literally, about which people have been shouting on the Internet the past few days. It comes from a word meaning "letter," and it means "to the letter" or "exactly what it says" or "really." If you say, "he was literally red-faced and gasping for breath after he ran to catch the bus," you mean that his face was really red and he was really gasping.

But some people use the word when what they say is not really so but they want to emphasize what they mean, the way someone might say, "He literally hit the ceiling when he read the letter." Dictionaries call that use of the word colloquial, which means "just the way people talk." And people have been talking that way since Dr. Johnson was working on his dictionary and sitting on that three-legged chair propped against the wall in his garret on Gough Square.

Some people, the ones who have been shouting on the Internet, think that that is untidy. They want literally to mean only "exactly what it says," and they say rude things about people who don't agree with them. One of them, a nice-looking man named Gary McCormick, wrote on Twitter today, "The act of ignoring correct behavior (or grammar) does not elevate said ignorance to correctness." You see, if you don't use the word his way, you're ignorant. You're just stupid.

Now Mr. John uses literally only the first way when he's editing other people's writing, because he's an editor and paid to be fussy. But he isn't paid to edit how people talk, so he doesn't bother with that.

Also, he doesn't think that you're stupid if you say things like "He literally hit the ceiling." He doesn't think that you mean to say that "he rose into the air," and he doesn't think anybody else would be stupid enough to think that you meant that. Now if you said that President Obama was born in Kenya, or President Bush ordered those planes into the World Trade Center, or people and dinosaurs lived at the same time six thousand years ago, or vaccines cause autism, saying those things would make people think that you are really, really stupid.

But calling you ignorant over the way you use literally, that's just kind of dumb.

 

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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