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Usage literalists

In my New Testament class at Michigan State all those years ago, Professor Anderson was going through those sweet old liberal Protestant efforts to explain away the miracle stories, and a student asked, “Why can’t we take them literally?”

“Because literalists are”—I recall he said but may be wrong—“clods.” He went on: “Nicodemus was the first literalist. Jesus told him he had to be born again, and he asked how he was supposed to get back into his mother’s womb.”

There is a kind of literalism that creeps into strictures on usage, and the people who go in for that make no more sense than Nicodemus. The other day Jan Freeman returned once again to the hoary stricture that over cannot be used to mean more than because it refers to a spatial relationship rather than an increase—despite having been used in exactly that sense in English for centuries.

In a comment on her post, Jonathon recalled being instructed that prices cannot be raised or lowered, because they are not physically moved; the can only be increased or decreased.

Ms. Freeman quotes Paul Brians as saying that people with these views are ignoring “the role metaphor plays in language” (as do those who insist that all Scripture is literally true and try to find evidence of the Noachian Flood in the Grand Canyon).

In her book on Ambrose Bierce, Ms. Freeman locates the origin of such peeves in the mistaken belief that a word should have only a single meaning. One sees it as well in the etymological literalists who insist that a word—decimate, for one—must not stray from its origins, particularly if it derives from Latin or Greek.

Now, I am a copy editor, on the prowl daily for careless combinations and ever aware of Mark Twain’s distinction that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. My job and my quest are to use language as precisely as we can manage.

But informed copy editors must also be aware that there is also a false precision, a will-o’-the-wisp that will lead them off into the marsh and waste valuable time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (11)


I agree with what you say, but looking backward, we often start by obeying the rules until we reach a relative level of competence that allows us to bend or break them. If the rule is wrong, or fuzzy, that makes the copy editor's task much harder; context and nuance play a vital role.

Plus, sparks will fly in discussions with literalists. and marsh gas is explosive.

Marc: Is there any reason to believe that this well-established metaphorical use of "over" should be avoided by novice writers until they're competent enough to use it right? This use of "over" goes all the way back to Old English; it's been standard for over a millennium. Is there any way a novice could possibly mess it up?

John Lawler,

Alas, for me, you've inadvertently opened up a min-Pandora's box of whimsy, w/ your warning assertion that "marsh gas is explosive", in direct response to Prof. McI.'s provocative little closing comment.

Almost immediately, the highly combustible, odorless, natural gas emerging from bogs, fens, marshlands, and the like---methane--- came to mind; followed by this very weird vision of a hulking, wild, kilted Scottish chieftain of a motley clan of diehard 'literalists'---The MacMethanes--- a passel of 'gasbags' by any other name, hailing from Perscriptiveburgh, just south of Edinburgh. (I said it was a weird vision. HA!)

The menacing Thane of The Literalists, brandishing his mighty broad-sword, emerges from the primordial lexicographic muck-and-mire, a leather-hooded, ever-vigilant, handsome Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk), perched on his master's bared, tattooed shoulder, ready to pounce upon any unwary victim w/ its hooked talons.

The blood of many a slain 'descriptivist ' stains clan chief Malcolm MacMethane's ice-cold, glistening, double-edged claymore blade, as he continues his dogged, determined quest to rid the lexicographic landscape of those free-thinking, tradition-averse 'heretics'.

Girded by his self-righteousness, and embolden by his unflagging cleaving to 'THE RULES', The Thane of The Literalists seems completely unaware that the tide has gradually turned, and his long reign over the auld language is tenuous; and moreover, those vocal descriptivist upstarts could soon have their shining day of ultimate reckoning, and partial retribution.

Folks, me thinks me thane has finally met his match.

But let's not get too bogged down (groan!) in metaphor, and pure fiction.

Thankfully, today's clashes between diehard prescriptivists and ardent descriptivists are largely devoid of any real blood-letting, or mano-a-mano physical combat, unlike my earlier, admittedly stretched, flight of fantasy.

Alas, If either opposing camp, in the real world, could somehow just give up some of its self-righteous obstinacy, perhaps our published prose, going forward, would be all the better for this sincere attempt at some sort of in-good-faith compromise.

Am I being too much of a cock-eyed optimist here? Perhaps.


P.S.: -----Sorry Dahlink. Can't keep a good Scotsman down. HA!

I have no problem with "over" instead of "more than" when there is a contextual choice. The problem has been the AP Stylebook, Usage and style are very different animals.

Alex, if someone were to turn your vision into a movie, I fear it might go straight to video rather than to the multiplex. But it could become a cult favorite!


Thanks for the compliment........... I think? HA!

Maybe not a "cult favorite" to the degree of the now classic, "The Rocky
Horror Picture Show", but perhaps, as you suggested, a direct-to-video 'sleeper-surprise' w/ avid Caledonia-philes who might appreciate a modicum of make-believe blood-and-gore, colliding and clashing of the ancient clans-- gaseous, explosive, colorful hand-to-hand combat on the dreary, desolate fens and moors of beloved Scotland.

Perhaps 3-D full-bore animation would be a viable option to a live action affair-----Literalists vs. Descriptivists going at it tooth-and-nail----the "Braveheart' of the lexicographic/ grammarian set. Granted a very narrow target audience, but hey, that chief Malcolm MacMethane appears like he could give even that Robert The 'Bruise' guy, of ancient Scottish lore, a run for his shekels. Just sayin'.

And that wily Marsh Hawk sidekick to MacMethane? Why who knows what grievous mischief and mayhem this loyal raptor could get into?

Well, Dahlink, I'm off.

Got a treatment, and script to write. Hollywood beckons, and the battle for the hearts, minds and ultimately wallets of the feuding language usage 'wonks' could hang in the balance.

Wish me well. I'm thinking Mel Gibson for director. (Just kidding.)

Under that gruff, rough, menacing exterior, lead character Malcolm MaMethane is really just one big Highland Teddy bear of a bloke, wrapped in plaid and bedecked w/ odd tattoos. Today, just your average Scottish biker dude, or 'alternative' rocker.


P.S.: ----- On a parenthetical note----I gather the early Picts who landed in Scotland way-back-when, were quite partial to tattooing. In fact, some disinterred, well-preserved ancient 'bog people' in Scandinavia and the UK have evinced various graphic tattoos.

That famous Tollund Man, the amazingly well-preserved 4th century Danish bog guy w/ scrunched up in the fetal position, a knotted noose drawn tightly around his neck, wearing a cool skull cap and sporting a distinct 5-o'clock shadow, apparently exhibited a few tattoo markings on his leathery body.

No, not a little butterfly motif on his hip, or Sponge Bob Square Pants in the small of his back. Let's get real, shall we? HA!

And let's not forget Otzi, the "ice man" found in the Italian Alps. He was tattooed as well.

An interesting (to me at least) tangent about literalism and Nicodemus. The idiom Jesus uses that is normally translated as "born again" can also mean "born from above. Exegetes since antiquity have interpreted this as Nicodemus intentionally misconstruing this in order to make an off-color joke ("Can one enter a second time into a mother's womb?"). Of course, "born from above" came to seem entirely too Calvinist for orthodox Catholics, so since St. Jerome this has been translated as "born again," causing all sorts of home, not the least of which is obscuring this joke. Marvel not. OK, go ahead and marvel.


Holy human jerky, Batman!

Who could forget that archeological wonder, Ötzi, the approximately 5,300 year-old naturally mummified alpine 'Iceman', discovered back in1991, essentially frozen in time, near the shared Austrian/ Italian border. Officially, the very long-in-the-tooth, mysterious dead-man-not-walking was determined to have found his final resting place on Italian turf........... well ice and granite, to be exact.

Indeed Dahlink, old Ötzi had several small, crude linear charcoal pigment-under-the epidermis-rendered tattoos, a cluster symmetrically straddling his lumbar spinal region, a singular cross-shaped configuration behind his right knee, and several blackish markings around each ankle.*

Not exactly as elaborate, or numerous as say Ray Bradbury's fictive "Illustrated Man", or actor Rod Steiger's filmic version there of, yet our 'Iceman' was modestly tattooed, nonetheless.

Dahlink, did you happen to catch the recently aired (Oct, 26th), most intriguing PBS Nova/ National Geographic documentary, "Iceman Murder Mystery", where freshly gleaned expert forensic/ medical autopsy findings extracted from the temporarily thawed out Ötzi from about this time last year, revealed that there is a strong possibility that our oldest naturally-well-preserved human my have been an unwitting murder victim?

The latest official take on his ultimate demise is that he was felled by an enemy arrow, shot from behind at relatively short range, w/ the projectile striking him in the left scapula, and the still-embedded arrow point likely puncturing a vital thoracic artery. A suspicious, intact, pooling of blood (a now very ancient hematoma, as it were), at the back of The Iceman's skull suggests the attacker might have tried to finish off poor Ötzi w/ a coup de grâce blow to the head w/ either a club, or convenient boulder....... although the arrow strike may well have instantly killed him. Internal hemorrhaging and all that gruesome stuff.

This month's issue of National Geographic has a great exposition, w/ some very cool illustrations of The Iceman's last moments, revealing the latest forensic probe into Otzi actual fate, essentially giving the reader an encapsulated preview of the aforementioned PBS 'doc'.

(Those folks at National Geographic are no dummies. They often run articles in their 'mag' that are basically unabashed plugs for their upcoming PBS, or National Geographic (cable) channel specials. Who can blame them?)

Sadly, the findings of the contents of Ötzi's majorly shifted stomach indicated that he had just eaten some now-extinct species of mountain ibex, and some wheat based high-carb foodstuff, and was likely just relaxing, digesting his what-would-be-his-final-repast, when he was sneak-attached, quickly dispatched, and abandoned for posterity, ultimate discovery, and mankind's now endless curiously and awe.

The poor bloke apparently never had a real chance.

*A lot of the details re/ The Iceman's sundry tattoos I gathered from the rather extensive Wiki page account on the subject of Özi.


Alex, I didn't see that program (although if it was on PBS, there will be re-runs). I read about Ötzi's last meal in Science News.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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