The Daily Post at WordPress.com has a post by Daryl L. L. Houston, “Literally”, that discusses the way people overuse and “incorrectly” use the word ‘literally’.
This is a perfect usage to allow us to look at what I call the “continuum of correct”. The English language is not just a moving target but one of many levels.
At one end of English usage is everyday conversation. Do a little experiment, take a recording device of some sort the next time you’re sharing a coffee with a friend and grab ten minutes of your conversation. Then spend the time to accurately transcribe it. This is the sort of thing linguistic researchers do all the time and they will tell you that even the best educated of us are totally incapable of grammatical speech with correct word usage when we speak informally. We speak in partial sentences, broken sentences and mix our tense and pluralization constantly. The surprise is that we understand each other perfectly.
This is the most informal of English usage, spoken conversation. In the modern world the next usage up might be Facebook and Twitter, then email and letters. As we go up on the formality continuum we also find people using language that is much more “correct”.
In the middle we have informal writing such as fiction (or blog posts) and right at the top in formality we have such things as job applications, university essays and magazine articles.
If we think about the “incorrect” use of the word ‘literally’ you can imagine that it is perfectly acceptable for you to say to a friend that you were “literally scared to death” even though you are alive to say it while at the same time have no problem with your school teacher chastising you for exactly the same usage in an English essay.
This is my continuum of correct. It’s wrong to say that using “literally” when you should say “figuratively” is always incorrect. We can find usages going back past the 19th century of exactly that and when you say it to a friend they know exactly what you mean. At the same time it’s wrong to say it is always correct. In a magazine article a good sub-editor will red pencil it faster than light.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that we vary on our own personal scale. I, for my sins, was once a magazine writer and editor with every work I wrote passed in front of exceptionally skilled and experience copy editors. After a few years of that you find that all your writing falls higher on the formal scale, your language usage becomes less common and more ‘correct’.
I can see this displayed perfectly on Facebook. My Facebook posts and most of my Facebook comments will have correct spelling, grammar and word usage — I’ll be careful about ‘too’ against ‘to’ and ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. If I compare that to my Facebook friends there are some that write as well, the great majority that let a few errors creep in without it disturbing them and a few who have posts full of spelling and grammatical errors. Of course in every case they are fully understandable and in such an informal setting we’re not going to nag them unless we are what Mr Houston calls an “English usage snob”.
Having such a high scale does create problems for me, however. I sometimes find that errors in semi-formal writing such as blog posts and marketing materials cause me actual pain. I have a close friend who is starting a small business and has created a website with a blog. She has all the right skills and energy for her business to work, she even writes interesting information but every time she posts to her blog or puts up a new section of her website I find myself almost unable to look past the grammar and spelling errors. Homonyms are her bete noir, particularly “they’re” versus “their”. This sort of thing leaves me in a quandary. Should I say nothing, should I say something, should I offer to help?
Where does your scale live? If you’re good at grammar and usage do you offer to help others?