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You Keep Using That Word



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I know language peeves are Nordlinger’s bailiwick, but I’ll step up with one, if he doesn’t mind. The context is the debate over a bill in the New York state legislature to offer taxpayer-supported subsidies to illegal-alien students at public colleges. (They already get in-state tuition, of course — this is New York, after all — the debate is over additional subsidies.) Reader Scott alerted me to the final sentence of the story in today’s NYT:

“The issue is far more prevalent and far more important,” he said, “when you’re dealing with younger children who’ve come to this country and are here for 10, 15 years and are literally as American as anyone else.”

Literally? Look, this isn’t like a dangling participle or split infinitive, the bans on which are stupid English-teacher rules followed by neither Shakespeare nor the King James Bible. Nor is it a matter of colloquial speech seeming out of place in writing. “Literally” actually means something, and it doesn’t mean “almost” or “for all intents and purposes.” I suppose what we’re seeing is “literally” being used figuratively, which is a problem since they’re opposites. Pretty soon we’ll need a new word to convey the literal meaning of “literally”. (Oh, and the speaker is a “Republican” state senator.)



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