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DEAR READER: The literal and not-so-literal uses of language

Friday, August 16, 2013 | 5:44 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — "Literally, I couldn't care less" pretty much sums up the current chatter on blogs and Facebook and in columns written by linguistic mavens, copy desk chiefs and general nit-pickers.

The noise apparently started with the publication and perusal of "Yes, I Could Care Less" by Bill Walsh with the delightful subtitle "How to be a language snob without being a jerk."

That's a tall order.

Some folks haven't been shy about saying Bill doesn't quite hit the mark, though, in his arguments for the proper usage of "I couldn't care less" and "literally." It's the high-noon showdown in the editing world between prescriptivists and descriptivists.

Bill is a copy editor at The Washington Post and the author of "Lapsing into a Comma" and "The Elephants of Style." He blogs at blogspot.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @TheSlot. He definitely has the smarts and the credentials to take a stance on language and grammar.

In 14 closely written pages in Chapter 1, Bill outlines his argument for continuing the long-standing "I couldn't care less" despite the decades of misheard, misused, misspoken usage of the phrase as "I could care less."

He's careful to acknowledge that "I could care less" does indeed have a specific meaning, but it's the not the same nuanced meaning as "I couldn't care less."

I get the argument for "I could care less," but I'm sticking with Bill. If you are going to tell someone that you don't give a fig about their concern or issue or real or imagined crises and want to convey your complete dismissal, why not say it with gusto? "I couldn't care less" certainly sends that curt message, if you just listen, rather than the glimmer of hope offered by "I could care less."

But ... really, truly, if you use "I could care less," I'll know what you mean. And that's what matters.

Which is the crux of the back-and-forth chatter about "literally." It's counter word is "figuratively," which means it didn't really happen but is used as emphasis or example.  "He figuratively hit the ceiling" would be correct — meaning he didn't but you get the picture — versus "He literally hit the ceiling," which means he really did hit the ceiling. Not a pretty picture, but I'm doubtful many, if any, folks hear that phrase and think that someone actually rose up and bopped their head on the tiles.

John McIntyre, author of the "You Don't Say" blog and content production manager and former copy desk chief at The Baltimore Sun, weighed in on "literally" in his Aug. 14 post.

He wrote: "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.'..."

John calls the second uses a "colloquialism" and acknowledges that listeners get the message when "literally" is used for emphasis instead of exacting dictionary definitions. John says he "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."

Bill's latest book offers much more on many more topics that should be of interest to anyone with a love of language and writing and editing, including the chapters "A Hyphen Manifesto" and "When Jargon Gets Jargony."

Reading his book, though, stirred a memory of a night at the Missourian copy desk, when a teaching assistant argued that the chastising saying about wrong-headedness is "If that's what you think, you have another thing coming." The expression was used as a direct quote by one of the state legislators. I asked if the statement had been accuracy checked, as it was an incorrect representation of the phrase "If that's what you think, you have another think coming."

No, no, argued the beginning copy editors, who were then astonished when a Google search pulled up the "think" version. But to my surprise, it also pulled up about as many of the "thing" versions.

And, so, we all had something more to think about.

• • •

For July, six participants submitted 13 corrections in the Show Me the Errors contest. Jim Terry submitted six corrections to top the entries for July. Alex Barker was the winner for the drawing for the contest honors. He will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com.


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Comments

stephen Kightlinger August 17, 2013 | 9:15 a.m.

I've always labored under the delusion that the rewards for my wrongheadedness lo these many years were things, but now it appears the things were thinks. Thanks.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates August 19, 2013 | 3:11 a.m.

A few years back before I became a Missourian, I asked a niece if she wanted to go to the movies...she said "I don't care..", and my thought was if she didn't neither did I. And, she was upset because we didn't go. A misunderstanding that was salvaged the next day.

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