Literally virtual

rogersgeorge on December 26th, 2013

Literally and virtually (and their cousins literal and virtual) are favorites of people who like to correct others’ English, and favorites of people who like to get their English right. A lot of people get them wrong, and we understand what they are saying, so I suppose it’s a losing battle to get people into the habit of using literally and virtually correctly. However, when you write something, especially when you’re explaining something, exercise care to get these two words right.

I don’t need to define them, do I? (okay—literal means real, virtual means not real.) The informal (and incorrect) way to use these words, especially literally, is as a general intensifier, rather like extremely and very. Try to be specific or precise instead of general. Your language will be more vivid.

By the way, virtual reality is an oxymoron, but it’s literally correct.

I guess the wizard in the Wizard of Id is like me, only he can do more about it than I can:

Myself, I’d have had the king say “He hates it when people use that word figuratively.” And speaking of being specific, that’s a wood clamp, not a vice.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed


rogersgeorge on February 26th, 2012

Many times you have a choice of what words or phrases to use when you write. Both (or more) of your choices are grammatical—more than one choice would be grammatically correct—but one choice is better than the others. I have noticed a few items that professionals consistently get right, and amateurs frequently get wrong.

That said is better than that being said. Why? Because whatever thing you’re referring to is over with, so the simple past is correct. Literally, the second choice tells you that it’s still being said, which is not true. Here’s an example from that book about anthrozoology I mentioned in the last post:

As a result, Koreans are increasingly ambivalent about eating dogs, and a recent poll found that 55% of adults disapproved of eating canine flesh. That said, the same survey reported that fewer than 25% of South Koreans favor a ban on dogmeat.

That first sentence is clearly in the past, and over with. So “that said” is better.

More than is better than over. When you compare numbers, strictly speaking, you are comparing more with fewer, not higher with lower. This metaphor can be ironic when the numbers go down. For example, if you’re in a submarine at over 600 feet, are you at 599 or 601?

After or when are better than once. This item appears when you have two or more events that happen one after the other. Think about it. What does “once” mean? One time.

After the griddle is hot enough, pour on the batter. When you get your shoes on, you may go outside. Once is enough, young man!

Speaking of putting things in order, don’t say “on top of each other.” This is literally impossible. It’s one on top of another.

one on top of another

Don’t use virtually for almost. “Virtually” is a perfectly good word, but it means “not real;” it doesn’t mean “almost.”

Almost everyone in the room was a grammar nazi.  The mime was trapped inside a virtual wall.

There’s a fine pair of sentences, even if the first one describes an unlikely circumstance.

A final example of professionalism: Professionals don’t overuse “as well as.” Most of the time they use plain old “and.” “As well as” implies some kind of separation between the two items. “And” joins them.

A good friend of mine, Jack Riepe, writes a very funny blog called Twisted Roads. However, he is an outstanding public relations writer as well as a humorist.

The separation implied here is that you might not expect both skills to reside in the same person. However, in a bio on the back cover of a book you might find a sentence like this:

Jack Riepe is a public relations writer and humorist who lives in Cape May, NJ.

Here the two go together like chocolate and ice cream. Take a look at the blog; it is pretty funny.