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As I’m sure many of you are already aware (from a variety of red-faced sources in the national press) this week saw the definition of “literally” re-written for the internet age. Specifically:
Literally: Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.
As to be expected, this caused a great deal of huffing and tutting from various journalists, bloggers and whiney media types. Since I work in PR, I’m guessing that I too should be outraged (falling well within that last category). Oddly enough though, I find myself surprisingly ambivalent towards the change. If anything, I’m more conflicted than outraged.
On the one hand, I often find myself thinking that those who misuse the English language are just a bit lazy. If people can’t be bothered to check their spelling, they hardly seem likely to put much thought into the content of their writing. If anything, the quality of language used can often act as a useful indicator when deciding whether or not something is actually worth reading.
On the other hand though, I also feel that such pedantic conformity to the ‘rules’ of English is highly oppositional to the very purpose of language. (Communication!)
Language has never been a fixed structure but is rather a continuously evolving and ultimately uncontrollable concept. There’s no point in attempting to tie down ‘proper English’ or ‘correct grammar’ as such concepts simply don’t exist. There’s no right or wrong, just past and present.
As one example, consider a word like “it’s”. A hundred years ago, such a lazy perversion of the ‘correct’ phrase “it is” would have been considered a worrying degradation of the English language; now though, we use it without even thinking. Perhaps in twenty years we’ll be saying something similar about words like “literally”, “innit” or “aint”.
By disapproving of literally’s transformation, we must ultimately disapprove of the structure of language as a whole. It’s good that words change; it reminds us of our history, society and culture. We need to forget pedantry and try to focus on the bigger picture. As long as people are still communicating (still sharing, still thinking, even still moaning) then nothing meaningful has actually been lost.
That’s my opinion anyway. …Cue the barrage of comments about how poorly written this blog post is.