5 language arguments you can stop having
Arguing about language is a passion for some people. However, Oxford Dictionaries is here to intervene and offer some insight into which arguments you don’t need to have anymore!
Argument: Isn’t the use of literally when something isn’t actually real or happening incorrect?
For some people, there is nothing worse than the figurative literally. In standard use, literally means ‘in a literal manner or sense’ or ‘exactly’, but its extended use has become very common in the past several decades. In its figurative sense, literally is ‘used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true’. For instance: ‘He was literally dying with laughter’. The subject of the sentence, of course, is not literally dying; the adverb is there in order to emphasize his extreme reaction.
For those plagued by this usage, it might help to point out that literary luminaries such as Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the word in this sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word has been used figuratively since the mid-18th century.
Read more about this use of literally in this post.
Argument: Isn’t it wrong to use biweekly to mean ‘twice a week’?
British English gets around the uncertainty of biweekly with fortnightly, which clearly refers to something ‘happening or produced every two weeks’. However, fortnightly has not made much headway in North American English, where speakers are stuck with the confusion of biweekly, which might mean either ‘twice a week’ or ‘every two weeks’. Is one of those a better option than the other?
Unfortunately, the word is simply ambiguous, and may refer to either frequency. So rather than referring to a publication as ‘biweekly’, you are better off saying that it ‘appears twice a week’ or ‘every two weeks’. The same difficulty is seen with bimonthly, which can mean either ‘twice a month’ or ‘every other month’.
Argument: Doesn’t nauseous refer to something ‘causing nausea’ and nauseated to feeling ‘affected by nausea’?
Traditionally, a distinction has been drawn between nauseated, meaning ‘affected with nausea,’ and nauseous, meaning ‘causing nausea.’ Today, however, the use of nauseous to mean ‘affected with nausea’ is so common that it is generally considered to be standard.
In fact, according to the OED, the use of nauseous to mean ‘affected with nausea’ has appeared in English since the mid-19th century.
Argument: If something is inflammable, doesn’t that mean that it’s not flammable?
In fact, both flammable and inflammable mean ‘easily set on fire’. Given the in- at the start of inflammable, which looks like the negative prefix in words like indirect, that might be surprising. It turns out that this in- is a holdout from Latin, a different in- prefix meaning ‘into’, which acts as an intensifier for the word it is attached to.
Because flammable is not only less confusing but also far more common in modern English than inflammable, you are better off sticking with flammable. The same choice should be observed between non-flammable and non-inflammable, both of which mean ‘not easily set on fire’.
Argument: Doesn’t further refer to figurative distance and farther to literal distance?
Traditionally, the distinction between further and farther does indeed have to do with figurative and literal distances. You would walk to the farther side of the room, but you would need to think further about whether the action would be necessary.
In modern English, further has emerged as the more common term, and can be used in abstract and metaphorical contexts, including with regard to time, where it is unusual to see farther. (‘We intend to stay a further two weeks.’) But when it comes to physical distance – further down the road, farther down the road – both words are acceptable. If you are writing or speaking in a formal context, it may be better to stick to the traditional abstract/physical distinction.
Read more about farther and further.