Up front, I’ll confess I’m a bit of a stickler for grammar. While I fall short of correcting stranger’s obvious mistakes, people really do sound uneducated — or downright stupid — when they can’t be bothered to learn their own language properly. I’ve certainly just thrown away resumes from job candidates who didn’t manage to get the basics correct in a document that represents them, and business communications where rules of grammar are violated make me cringe.
When I was a typesetter (back when it was done optically, if you can imagine) I was known for getting out an Exacto knife and physically repairing mismatched “who” and “whom” usage, or replacing well abused words such as “aggravate” and “moot.” This led quickly to my promotion to copy editor, the knack of which has served me well through the years.
While on a shuttle bus near Midway airport, I sat behind two businessmen, traveling together. One of them was telling a somewhat boring story that I barely listened to, but my ears naturally perked up when he used the phrase, “… we had so little time, we literally had to run to the baggage claim …”
At this point, his companion interrupted him. “Literally?”
“Yes, literally,” his friend repeated, and attempted to explain, “we didn’t have much time at all.”
“Oh good,” his friend interrupted again. “I was afraid you were using ‘run to the baggage claim’ in the metaphorical sense.”
“Well, you know, when you’re sitting at a large dinner party, and you say ‘I’ve got to run to the baggage claim’ by way of polite explanation for why you’re leaving all of a sudden.”
“Sometimes I’ll be petting the dog and say “RUN TO THE BAGGAGE CLAIM, BOY!” but of course I don’t mean it literally. There’s no actual baggage claim within miles of my back yard, and it would be rather silly to expect my dog to make it through security by himself.”
“I’m not sure I …”
“Last time my wife and I got back from Mexico, we checked bags and I was going to pick them up while she waited on the benches. She said ‘don’t run to the baggage claim!’ We laughed and laughed for hours.”
“We had plenty of time, of course. It’s not like I literally had to run to the baggage claim. But after that long flight and that airplane food, I sure had to figuratively. If you know what I mean. It’s not like I could ‘run to the baggage claim’ in front of all those people. That’s what made it so funny.”
“I don’t think I …”
“Well, the problem is that it’s nearly lost its meaning. Like when we play tennis and the ball lands on your side, I can’t just say “the ball’s in your court” without adding the word “literally” or you might think I’m speaking metaphorically. Like yours is the next move or something.”
“I think you’re splitting hairs…”
“There’s another one! I walk around with a sharp knife, carefully slicing the ends of these hairs, and yet when I tell somebody I’m ‘splitting hairs’ they think I’m making some sort of meaningless distinction! All the time I’m splitting hairs in a literal sense! That’s quite a distinction, you’ll have to agree.”
“I didn’t mean literally that way…”
“Oh, right, you must have meant ‘literally’ in the metaphorical sense. Where it serves as a sort of vague intensifier and a way of needling people who take ‘literally,’ literally. Well, to heck with those people, I say. If you want to ensure that the person you’re talking to knows that you really, really, ran for the baggage claim, feel free to jam in any word you want. I recommend ‘irregardlessly.’”
Best. Bus ride. Ever.