Literally, contranyms, and other grammar silliness

Did you know? Grammar can be funny.

That’s the conclusion I draw from reading just the titles of Bill Walsh’s books: Lapsing Into a Comma, The Elephants of Style, and the new Yes, I Could Care Less. Walsh is a copyeditor at the Washington Post (I know! Who knew there were any? snark) who led a chat there recently about all kinds of grammatical questions, from new words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online to the contradictory meanings of “sanction.”

First, yay him and yay the Post for having such a chat at all. People care about this stuff, and not just those of us who attempt to make some sort of living at it. As I keep saying, words matter, especially in a wonky city like Washington. Second, yay him for being sensible. “New words can be annoying. Changes in the way people use old words can be especially jarring,” he says. “The good news is that even if ‘literally’ can mean that other thing, you and I and the Washington Post stylebook are not required to use the word that way.”

Random comments:

• In the spirit of parking on a driveway and driving on a parkway, one reader wondered why “sanction” means both to approve of and to punish. I admit I’d never thought about that. Likewise, “sanguine” means both bloody and bloodless, “cleave” means both divide and bring together, and “to dust” can mean either to add or to subtract dust. Walsh calls these contranyms—now there’s a cool word!—words that have two opposite meanings. The Oxford Dictionaries Online have now added “literally” to that number. (Ugh!)

• Walsh says, “To founder is to sink. To flounder is to struggle, as a flopping fish might.” Oh, boy. Now, if people don’t know the difference automatically, how are they supposed to remember that? Too bad the mnemonic is confusing.

• I always feel for immigrants trying to learn English. What a nutty language. Here’s an example: A reader asks about past participles, trying to understand “shone” versus “shined” (which “just sounds wrong to me”). Walsh replies, “So many past participles are irregular in this language, you’d have thunk the grammar gods were playing a joke on us. It’s hardly surprising that new ones have snuck in.”

• Editors aren’t perfect, even at grammar, and here’s an example: I’ve always had trouble with this sort of construction. Walsh writes, “By the way, I was thrilled to read ‘one of the people who get annoyed.’ Too many people hypercorrect such things and would say ‘I’m one of the people who GETS annoyed.’ Which would be dead wrong.” Eek!

• Circling back to the beginning: Several of Walsh’s readers commented on “literally” becoming not literal in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, a change that has made many people apoplectic. Okay, not literally, but close. One of those people was Gene Weingarten, frequent maker of poop jokes and—by the way—two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

A week or so ago, he weighed in on the controversy. “I am not a language tyrant,” he wrote. “… But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.” Virtual panties, Gene!

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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