Getting Figuratively Literally Correct

Here’s the comic, Dustin:

Dustin - 08/29/2017

So. A little reminder: Literally means it actually happened; figuratively means it didn’t actually happen, just something like it happened. In informal speech we tend to use “literally” as a way to emphasize what we’re saying. That’s okay, but when you’re writing to explain something, use the correct word.

I suppose in that last panel she could have said, “You both are literally annoying me.”

I must add that I could have left “literally” out of the title of this post, and the title would still be literally correct, and I could have put an “and” between the words and it would also be literally correct. And maybe easier to read, even.

And so we come to the hidden lesson here: if something is so, it is also literally so. Hence the word “literally” is often unnecessary, especially in expository writing.

In, Into, and Even In To

German has in, but nothing exactly equivalent to into. The reason is that German uses case to indicate motion or lack of motion. In with the dative case means the same as English in; in with the accusative means into, because the accusative (among other things) implies motion.

Okay, in English and German, here’s a simple example:

I climbed into the car;  ich steig in das Auto.
I did it in the car; ich habe es in dem Auto getan.

However, you can also use in and to next to each other as two separate words, and your spell checker is even likely to get this wrong! It’s when you use a separable verb (aka phrasal verb) followed by a prepositional phrase or infinitive. Here are some example separable verbs with in: give in, put in, break in, chip in, fill in.

An example of getting it wrong, from a passage at history.com about Son of Sam:

On Christmas Eve, 1975, he gave into these internal voices and severely wounded 15-year-old Michelle Forman with a hunting knife.

And getting it right:

I chipped in to help the cause.
I shouldn’t break in to their conversation.

 

So be careful: this is easy to get wrong.

A Quine!

Willard Van Orman Quine was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century.” Wikipedia

I’m pretty sure you never heard of him, but he created a stir of sorts in intellectual circles a while back because of some of the things he thought up, one of which is a type of self-referential statement. I’ve mentioned Gödel’s Proof a couple times (here and here) and his proof involves self-referential statements, so I ran into Quine’s stuff while I was studying Gödel. I think the reference to quine was in the April 1962 issue of Scientific American or Gödel Escher Bach, but I don’t remember for sure, and I don’t have a copy of either publication handy to go look.

Okay, so what’s a quine? Mainly you find them in computing circles. It’s a program that creates a copy of itself. To refer to Wikipedia again,

quine is a non-empty computer program which takes no input and produces a copy of its own source code as its only output.

But it doesn’t have to be a computer program. Sometimes you can make a sentence that refers to itself in the manner of a quine, and here I found a comic that gives us a nice example. Hey, sometimes comics are pretty sophisticated!

At least I think it’s a quine…

We’re Leaving Latin Behind

Here’s a sentence from a science article by a writer for The New York Times. If anybody ought to know that the plural of millennium is millennia, he (and his editors) ought to. So this has to be deliberate.

And there is no doubt that thawing of the full depth of permafrost would take millenniums.

And I have seen plenty of places where the “singular” of criterion appears as criteria, its plural. Especially in computer-geek circles, certainly not an unintelligent crowd.

Pretty soon I won’t be able to harrumpf about it.

Why Your Writing Needs to be Accurate

A few years back I wrote an article about how important it is to write responsible documentation. It’s here: https://ezinearticles.com/?Writing-Good-Instructions—Sometimes-a-Matter-of-Life-Or-Death&id=2640549

The article is about some tech writing in the apollo program that was careful work and made a material contribution to the rescue of the Apollo 13 astronauts.

Here’s an example of someone who didn’t do quite as well:

Three years ago, according to a former D.O.E. official, a federal contractor in Los Alamos, having been told to pack the barrels with “inorganic kitty litter,” had scribbled down “an organic kitty litter.” The barrel with organic kitty litter in it had burst and spread waste inside the cavern. The site was closed for three years, significantly backing up nuclear-waste disposal in the United States and costing $500 million to clean, while the contractor claimed the company was merely following procedures given to it by Los Alamos.

Shall I repeat my mantra?

PROOFREAD!

I’ve Mentioned Fluff Before

Actually several times over the past several years. (Search on redundan or fluff to see more.) Extra words go contrary to my rule about good expository writing, to be concise. So I suppose I don’t really need to mention it again, but this Wrong Hands comic has some good examples of what not to do. Besides, repetition is the mother of learning, right?

My Favorite Non-science Blogger Writes about Grammar!

(Another shameless plug for someone else)

Mike Peterson is a journalist who writes a blog named Comic Strip of the Day. Usually he uses comics as starters for political and social commentary. (Mike, if you see this, I hope you think that’s a fair description.) I frequently use comics too, but to make points about grammar and writing, mostly expository writing.

This time he started with a Non Sequitur comic that fits well here (see below) and he writes about grammar! Go read the whole post; it’s good, though I don’t know the rule he refers to regarding “may” and “might.”

Here’s the comic:

 

Someone Gets Fewer and Less Right!

It’s even in the punchline, so you can read the whole Pajama Diaries comic with a clear conscience!

Remember the rule? With things you measure, you use “less” and with things you count, you use “fewer.”

Pajama Diaries - 08/07/2017

About Asterisks

Another quickie. I generally stay out of politics, but the other day I made a comment and asked a question about asterisks (still don’t have the answer), and today I saw another asterisk. So here it is. I still think the usual number is five or six.

I once or twice made comments about what the rest of the symbols mean, too.

A Word of Advice about Being Right

The word “right” has at least three reasonably unrelated meanings, though they share a derivation. Right can refer to your political leanings, it can mean the opposite of left, and it is a synonym for being correct. (the shared derivation is not etymological but cultural in the case of politics, which used to refer to the right-hand side of the aisle.) And then there’s pun-fodder in the homonym “rite.”

Here’s an example of confusing right and left from good old Gasoline Alley:

So we have a situation ripe for ambiguity, which is the enemy of good expository writing. In spoken language you can get away with it (ahem, usually) because you have the aid of tone of voice, but when you’re writing, here’s my advice:

When that’s what you mean, always write “correct” instead of “right.”

I remember watching a John Cleese movie that ended with a scene of a (humorous) almost-car crash because the driver and passenger confused the meaning of “right.”

Maybe you should always use “correct” when that’s what you mean.