Don’t Be So Literal! (Okay, I’m Trying…)

Victor Wishna

Staff Writer

Victor Wishna's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post, NPR, KCMetropolis.org, and others. His writing and editing services firm, The Vital Word helps find the right words for nonprofit, corporate, and individual clients. Follow him on Twitter: @vwishna.

With all apologies to the Kindle, iPad, Nook, and even the Itty Bitty Book Light, the best literary devices available to English readers and writers are still the metaphor, analogy, simile and the like. They are what make language interesting, breathing life into the most common of words and revealing patterns in the way we think as societies and individuals, as well as the way we use language to engage, influence, and even manipulate. It’s what makes the literal into literature; in almost every example of the literary form throughout history, from the Good Book to The Great Gatsby and beyond, the exact meaning is but one interpretation (and, depending on who you are or who you are talking to, not necessarily the correct one).

But when it comes to my own everyday writing, I’ll admit that I have been one of those “usage literalists” that self-proclaimed “veteran drudge” (and former head of the Baltimore Sun copy desk) John McIntyre addressed this week on his blog, “You Don’t Say”. As an editor—both of other people’s work, and especially of my own—I get almost giddy when I spot an “over” or “under” before a number and relish changing it to the more precise “more than” or “less than.” I mean, come on—“over” and “under” refer to spatial not quantitative relationships.* Am I right, people?

*Though, somehow, it’s never occurred to me** that the sports-betting line known as the “Over/Under” should therefore really be called the “More Than/Less Than.”

**Until just now.

McIntyre’s post sent me to some self-reflecting. Am I sometimes being “absurd,” as the respected former English professor and author of Common Errors in English Usage Paul Brians would have it? Is the problem really the use of language or my own relationship to it? Is it the words? Or is it me?

I like to think of myself as a liberal when it comes to the literal. I know full well—and have argued before—that whether in conversation or in writing, the language is meant to be used and therefore evolves, conforming to the lives and times of its users, rather than the other way around. At the same time, without some rules, words will lose or abuse their own power, whether or not those rules are necessarily still reaffirmed by the dictionary. And the overuse of metaphor, hyperbole, and all those other wonderful toys is one of the leading causes of bad writing (even the most enjoyable kind).

For example, even if using “over” in place of “more than” isn’t wrong (as Brians claims, “‘Over’ has been used in the sense of ‘more than’ for over a thousand years”), isn’t “more than” still better, at least in most circumstances? When being precise is the goal (and in this narrow example of numbers, that is usually the case), isn’t it best to be as precise as possible? Not being wrong is not the same as being right. McIntyre cites “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.”

So I think for now I will continue to struggle as a reader and a writer (and particularly as an editor) whenever I encounter uses that seem to violate my standards of the literal, while still embracing new uses of literary devices that add to the joy of literature.

And—literarily and literally—isn’t that what language is all about?