Pet Peeve Department

Every once in a while, a word or phrase or rhetorical trope will spread throughout the writing world like kudzu. A few years ago, there ...
by | July 5, 2007
 

Every once in a while, a word or phrase or rhetorical trope will spread throughout the writing world like kudzu. A few years ago, there seemed to be stories every day that paraphrased the "shocked, shocked" Captain Renault in Casablanca.

Just now, there are a couple of words that journalists can't seem to live without. One is "famously," as in, "Bush famously said in 2001 he trusted Putin after looking him in the eye and gaining a 'sense of his soul,'" or, "John Quincy Adams famously warned against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy," or, "In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad famously fell out with his deputy Anwar Ibrahim."

I would argue that nothing Mahathir Mohamad has ever done actually became famous, at least in this country. But these are just some of the many examples of the use of this word over the last couple of days in two news outlets alone (The Washington Post and Reuters). It's past time to retire using this word for this type of emphasis.

But the one that really peeves me at the present time is the word literally. Writers have often used the word to add extra emphasis, as in, I would have to be literally insane. Today, it's just used to spruce up cliches.

The writer will reach for a handy cliche and then insert the word "literally" next to it, so we know that what he or she is describing is not just a figure of speech but actually happened. "The train pulled out of the station -- literally -- as Jeremy set off for college."

It's beyond tiresome. I made that last one up but I've collected many real examples. Here is my least favorite, from The New Yorker: "When investigators examined the records later, they found Mrs. Clinton's fingerprints, literally, on them."

Does that writer think anyone would be so confused by the term "fingerprints" that she would need this further explanation? If you're not portraying things in a way that they might be taken literally, are you still practicing journalism?

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