Friday, April 8, 2011

Uninterested? Only If You're Disinterested

I'm a bit of a language geek. Which is not to say that I always write or speak in perfect English. If I did, that last sentence would have been part of the first sentence.

But I have my bugaboos. So does Ben Yagoda over at Slate.

Yes, I know that language changes over time and some things that we consider perfectly acceptable would have left folks in prior centuries aghast. My main concern is the same as Yagoda's, the few words for which we have no proper substitute.

"Literally", of course, is the granddaddy of them. To me, anyway. Yagoda avoids its discussion. Maybe it's too obvious. Or too painful.

As Yagoda points out when discussing "disinterested", there is no exact synonym for that word. (Oddly enough, in a prior paragraph, he points out that "impartial" means roughly the same thing.) But this is even more true for "literally". Please try to name a synonym for it. Once it loses its meaning, we have no single word left to express this concept. This is where language's evolution becomes devolution.


Mrs. Chili said...

My latest obsession is the "people who/things that" problem. SO few people say "people who..." and it bugs the crap out of me. I'm also forever correcting my students' "me and my brother...."

MAB said...

There's a pernicious flipside to "me and my brother", which I'm assuming is meant to refer to instances of me's use at the beginning of a sentence (i.e. as a subject pronoun).

I find that "I" is misused as often as "me". Because some people are sensitive to me's misuse as a subject pronoun, they over-correct and misuse "I" as an object pronoun. All the time, particularly in the business world, I see e-mails asking to "send the analysis to Robert and I".

NO NO NO NO NO! Douglas and I will send it to you and Robert. You and Robert will give your feedback to Douglas and me.

My English teachers always asked us to remove the named person and ask ourselves if what remained made sense. You would never say "send it to I" (unless you were Bob Marley), any more than you would say "Me went to school".

I = subject
Me = object


Cokehead said...

I generally try not to worry too much about horrible grammar - until it passes an invisible threshold.

People are ignorant bastards. Chiding them for little mistakes just isn't feasible.

Mimi said...

"Literally," means "actually."

MAB said...

"Literally" does not simply mean "actually". It means "I am not using a figure of speech." It is the opposite of "figuratively".

One would say "I actually ate that whole sandwich." But one would not (or at least should not) say "I literally ate that whole sandwich." Because "I ate that whole sandwich" is not a figure of speech.

The only time one should use "literally" is if one is expressing something that could be understood figuratively.