July 1, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: In defense of literally; never use literally & regards or regard

Posted in literally, regard/regards at 6:30 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: In defense of ‘literally’

Nah, not really. I will, however, cut it a little slack. Just a little.

I’m talking, of course, about the widespread use of ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively.’ What brought this to mind was a quotation I ran across while reading the New York Times:

“You see all these kids literally glued to their phones,” Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, told me. (NY Times, June 25, 2010)

I had to smile at the image of a lot of kids with phones stuck to their ears.

But I would argue that no one reading the article thought, for a second, that telephones were actually pasted to the kids’ heads. I would further argue that while using ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’ is inaccurate and is usually done mistakenly, there are times when it is done intentionally to add emphasis to or intensify what the speaker is saying. (However, I tend to think that such use was not Mayor Newson’s intent,) This usage to provide emphasis or to intensify has been around for a very long time.

“The land literally flowed with milk and honey.” Louisa Mae Alcott, Little Women, 1868

“Tom was literally rolling in wealth.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1878

There are other quotations, going back to the eighteenth century, but these should do. Now, I am not defending misuse, but when ‘literally’ is used for emphasis, you could perhaps view it as metaphorical.

[NOTE: About cutting some slack. This is an idiom which is fine for casual writing (like the WLUT) and conversation, but should never be used in our formal, scientific writing.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   About the origin of the phrase:

Still very much in use today and probably thought by most people as being relatively modern in origin, the phrase ‘give me some slack’ or ‘cut me some slack’ (meaning make allowances to complete something) is actually hundreds of years old. Tying a ship to a pier was no easy feat and took two teams of men armed with mooring lines. As one line was pulled to haul the ship closer the other line was released or ‘given slack’. The process would go on until the ship was properly aligned. Source: Harbourguides.com]

Tip 1, Part 2: Never use ‘literally’

I know that was a rather lackluster defense of using ‘literally’ in the figurative sense, but that is really as far as I am willing to go. But here’s the take home message I really wanted you to have:

Don’t use the word ‘literally,’ and I mean that literally. There are far more risks than rewards in using it.

If you use it to mean ‘figuratively,’ you risk the reader thinking that you are using it mistakenly.

If you use it to mean ‘figuratively,’ it can lead to a misunderstanding of what you are trying to say.

If you use it to mean ‘figuratively,’ why don’t you just use figuratively?

if you use it to mean ‘literally,’ there is always another word you can use. For example: actually, completely, correctly, faithfully, indisputably, letter by letter, not figuratively, plainly, precisely, really, rightly, strictly, to the letter, truly, undeviatingly, indisputably, unerringly, verbatim, veritably, etc.

It almost never adds anything to your writing and worse, if you use it, I’m literally going to explode.

I did find one quotation involving ‘literally’ that I really liked:

“I never did very well in math – I could never seem to persuade the teacher that I hadn’t meant my answers literally.”
Calvin Trillin (American Writer, b.1935)

Tip 2: Regard or regards redux

We’ve talked about this but it seems to come up often at grant deadlines, so I thought I would mention it once again.

The following is similar to a sentence I recently read (I often edit sentences so the errant investigator can’t be identified).

Because this screening is not completely accurate with regards to staging, especially for early stage tumors, the analysis will be repeated by stratifying patients based on pathologic stage.

Now, hear this:

Give my regards to Broadway.

And that is the ONLY way you should ever use ‘regards.’ ‘Regards’ with an ‘s’ refers to a positive sentiment and should be used the way you would use ‘best wishes.’

Give my regards to your parents.

It is sometimes used to sign a letter:

With regards,

Best regards,

Warmest regards,

[NOTE: I do recognize that ‘as regards’ is considered acceptable, but I find it to be a completely ugly construction, and I don’t want to put the idea of it in your heads.]

For our purposes, let’s pretend that ‘regards’ doesn’t exist. We never want to use it in medical or scientific writing. There will never be an appropriate occasion to use ‘regards’ in your formal writing.

What the writer wanted to say is this:

Because this screening is not completely accurate with regard to staging, especially for early stage tumors, the analysis will be repeated by stratifying patients based on pathologic stage.

It is correct to say ‘with regard to ‘ or ‘in regard to.’

Still, it may be better yet to substitute one word-regarding-for the three. And you can also think about ‘about,’ ‘concerning’ ‘considering,’ or others.

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