You mean, like, literally literally?

Literally: a term used, particularly by sports commentators, to denote an event that is not literally true.

Linguist Carmen Ebner asked Britons how they felt about proper English. Turns out they don’t always agree with grammar and style guides.

By Bart Braun
“When I’m at a party, and I tell people that I’m a linguist researching attitudes about the English language, people tend to get scared”, says Carmen Ebner. “They think you will judge them for any mistake that they might make.” 

Actually, most linguists think that people are really good at using language. Copy editors and schoolteachers might grumble at dangling participles or people using ‘like’, like, you know, all the time, but for linguists, that’s just people using their language. It’s similar to a biologist who enjoys the diversity in wild boars: it’s the pig farmer and the butcher that want all animals to be exactly the same.

Linguists call this liberal approach to language “descriptive”: it describes what is happening, and that’s it. The teachers’ approach, where most ways to use language are “wrong” and there is one correct, desirable way to speak and write, is called “prescriptive”.

The prescriptive way of looking at language is what people are most familiar with, after years in school.
It can also be a razor’s edge, dividing class and culture. You, personally, might think that spelling rules are nonsensically prescriptive, but if you send an application letter with an “immediatly” in it, chances are that it’ll end up in the shredder immediately. Do you use double negatives, like “I didn’t do nothing”? In many social circles, you might as well be eating your soup from the tapered end of the spoon, like a savage.

“People simply want hard and fast rules for language”, Ebner says. “They turn to those rules, in grammar books and guides, and so these books affect the speakers, and indirectly, society as well. That’s something that linguists cannot ignore about prescritivism, even though not all of us like it.”

In the eternal battle between prescribers and describers, the common public is often forgotten, even though they are the actual users and consumers of a language. In the United Kingdom, where Ebner did the research for her PhD, the latest investigation of usage problems in British English was done in 1970. “In other countries, such as the US or the Netherlands, this kind of research is much more common”, Ebner says. 

So, why isn’t it common in Britain? Ebner thinks is has to do with the strong class system: “If you are a regional accent speaker, you are not perceived as equal to an RP speaker, for instance (Received Pronounciation being the accent you know from the BBC, BB). Research into attitudes about language would reveal discrimination, and that would threaten the system. I hope my thesis shows that there is a big gap in our knowledge here, and that it will help to involve the common public into the debate our their language.”

The Austrian researcher asked 112 respondents to react to sentences with usage problems. If someone says “His heart literally broke”, is that an acceptable use of “literally”? Can you split an infinitive, as Star Trek did in “To boldly go where no man has gone before”? Is it okay to write “Go slow”, or is the suffix -ly mandatory? The respondents weren’t just asked to say if something was wrong, but also how sure they were of this, and why.

As it turns out, the results differ from what you might find in grammar guides. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with a split infinitive. “To go boldly” is not better than “To boldly go”, they insist. But the people Ebner asked, disagree. Only 41 percent of them would consider the use of a split infinitive acceptable in a formal letter. 
It’s not that they’re always holier than thou, though. About “literally”, the Guardian’s Style Guide says: “A term used, particularly by sports commentators, to denote an event that is not literally true, as in ‘Manchester City literally came back from the dead.’” Ninety percent of the people in Ebners study thought using “literally” figuratively was perfectly fine.

Data are
There are some notable differences between the respondents, though. Women reject a suffixless adverb three times more often than men. People who spoke English as a second language think that “data is” singular, native speakers insist that “data are” the plural of “datum” more often. Both versions are acceptable, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

“I hope my research is one step along the way to a better understanding of the social ties between language users, and the role of language. In my current research, I want to find out how these kinds of attitudes influence your life. Your language use might block your career, stigmatize you, or make it harder to move from one social class to another.

Most respondents agree that the media are the gatekeepers of language. The people who think that English is going to hell in a handbasket – you have them in every language, probably – know who to blame. “Good, fluent use of English still continues – but there seems to be a wider gulf between this and colloquial usages, and definitely a lack of awareness and understanding of received usage. Much of this slapdash development must be the trickle-down effect of the media – the broadsheet press are particularly at fault, partly in an attempt to be fashionable and capture the young”, one of Ebners respondents wrote.

Ebner: “The BBC, as a public service broadcaster, belongs to the people, and are seen as a beacon of correctness. ‘Our task is to tread a fine line between conservatism and radicalism, to write in such a way that we do not alienate any section of our audience’, the BBC style guide says. That is of course immensely difficult, because language keeps changing. Now that the non-literal use of “literally” is considered acceptable by English dictionaries, it can only take a couple of years until the BBC starts using it like that, too.”

Carmen Ebner
Proper English Usage
PhD defence was on the 5th of September

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