By William Safire
Nov. 4, 1979
Not long ago, I advertised for perverse rules of grammar, along the lines of “Remember to never split an infinitive” and “The passive voice should never be used.”
The notion of making a mistake while laying down rules (“Thimk,” “We Never Make Misteaks”) is highly unoriginal, and it turns out that English teachers have been circulating lists of fumblerules for years.
As owner of the world’s largest collection, and with thanks to scores of readers, let me pass along a bunch of these never‐say‐neverisms:
• Avoid run‐on sentences they are hard to read.
• Don’t use no double negatives.
• Use the semicolon properly, always use it where it is appropriate; and never where it isn’t.
• Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed.
• Do not put statements in the negative form.
• Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
• No sentence fragments.
• Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
• Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
• If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
• A writer must not shift your point of view.
• Eschew dialect, irregardless.
• And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
• Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
• Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
• Hyphenate between syllables and avoid un‐necessary hyphens.
• Write all adverbial forms correct.
• Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
• Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
• It is incumbent on us to avoid archaisms.
• If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
• Steer clear of incorrect forms of verbs that have snuck in the language.
• Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixed metaphors.
• Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
• Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
• Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
• If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.
• Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
• Don’t string too many prepositional phrases together unless you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
• Always pick on the correct idiom.
• “Avoid overuse of ‘quotation “marks.” ’ ”
• The adverb always follows the verb.
• Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.
Less Is More, Not Fewer
“It’s time you did a paragraph on ‘less‐fewer,’” writes slanguist Stuart Berg Flexner. “The new ‘Lite’ beers claim to have ‘less calories’ (though anyone who spells ‘light’ as ‘lite’ can’t be expected to know too much about usage— I hope their beer is purer than their language). I’m sure the admen sat around debating whether they should use fewer because it was correct or less because it might sound more familiar, or relaxed, to the listeners, or even seem macho to make the mistake.”
Carol Klein of New York agrees: “These beers can have less body, less foam, less taste, less color, and they can be less filling, less fattening and less expensive, but they can have only fewer calories.” Less deals with quantity; “few” with number. “Much” goes with “less”; “many” goes with “fewer.”
Because I enjoy thin beer, and even like simplified spelling, I was prepared to let the “lite” guys get away with it. But along came an advertisement for a car promising “less gallons” of gas, and then another for a laundry product that cost “less dollars” than the usual soap and bleach.
Now comes American Airlines with a plan for checking in at either the front counter or the departure gate, hawking “one less line!”
That does it. If American —doing what it does worst —keeps undermining our gram mar, Texas International will gobble them up and there’ll be one less airline.
If you get a ladder, climb up to within reach of the top of the room and smash your fist into the ceiling, then — and only then — can you be “literally hitting the ceiling.”
If, however, you explode in anger, then you are “figuratively hitting the ceiling.”
“Literal” means “actual,” without exaggeration, no fooling with metaphors. But for more than a century, it has also been misused to mean just the opposite; now, “literally” is reaching a critical mass, when it will become a Humpty Dumpty word, meaning whatever the speaker chooses it to mean.
“You are literally pushing money out the door with a wheelbarrow,” complained former Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal this summer. Donald Goldsmith, of Berkeley, Calif., protests: “This is literally murdering the English language.” What Mr. Blumenthal (who was figuratively pushed out of the Carter Cabinet Room door in a wheelbarrow) meant was “metaphorically,” or “virtually” or “practically” (not synonyms, but all far from “literally”).
You can literally drop dead on the spot, but you cannot literally jump out of your skin. Why the confusion? This is what probably happened: the word was first used for emphasis, to mean “no kidding.” “I am literally broke: not a dime to my name.” The penniless speaker, still well dressed, then went on to use a metaphor, but kept the adverb as a modifier, even though it directly contradicted its own meaning: “I am literally in rags.”
From that mistake came the debasement of the word. The total destruction of its meaning came when it was coupled with its opposite as a re‐emphasizer: “I was literally and figuratively sweating blood.” “Literally” is not the only word that has lost touch with reality: look at “really.” That word also was meant to describe a state of reality, or literalness. Even as a substitute for “Is that so?,” the word asked, “Is that true, or real?” Nowadays, one guy goes, “I literally flew off the handle,” and the other guy goes “Really.” It’s a grunt, meaning, “I’m still here.” (One does not “say” any more; one “goes,” as if to say, “He goes, ‘Crazy!’“)
Is “literally” — meaning “actually” — worth fighting for? Some of us think so. Really.
‘Literal’ means ‘actual,’ without exaggeration, no fooling with metaphors. But for more than a century, it has also been misused to mean just the opposite; now, ‘literally’ is reaching a critical mass, when it will become a Humpty Dumpty word, meaning whatever the speaker chooses it to mean.