Valerie Fridland’s new book Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English provides enough material for an eternity of Wednesday Word posts. Literally.
Yep, Fridland takes on not only the non-literal sense of literally, but also um and uh, the pronoun they as a singular, and even the detested and abhorred vocal fry. She finds some good in all of these, and in like, dude, and many other linguistic shibboleths. As a linguist, she analyzes the need these usages are filling, or, if not a need, their usefulness in social interactions.
Her overarching theme is, “Chill.” (Or possibly, “Dude. Chill.”) Our apoplexy over language change is frequently built on sand. When you hear grammatical errors, does your head literally explode? In fact, Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, and Austen used literally in this intensifying sense. The word’s meaning is shifting, like very and awfully before it. We’re expending a lot of mental energy over an inexorable historic process. Language changes, and it always has. Ain’t nothing we can do about it.
Yes, Shakespeare also employed ain’t, as well as double negatives.
Language changes most often climb up from the bottom of society’s ladder. Young women, especially, often drive this evolution. Fridland writes, “It’s a good bet that whatever . . . eventually makes it into the grammar books probably started with the very folks whose speech is most criticized and reviled. The disenfranchised? Check. The young? Check. The female? Check. And while many of the curiosities heard in the speech around us may die out as quickly as a trending TikTok, some will go the distance and become the speech that our grandkids rebel against. And yes, that is a sentence-ending preposition, the likes of which Shakespeare, preposition strander himself, would be proud.”
Of course, you can still edit out the likes from your sentences and restrict your use of literally. You can still be annoyed by others’ speech habits. Just try not to frame your annoyance as the end of civilization, or as snobby put-downs of other people’s speech habits.
In the comments, you can share what drives you crazy, with the understanding that I will respond as Valerie Fridland, with charming history and explanations. I told you. I can draw on this book, like, forever.