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Word Court -- May 1996

Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

wordct3 picture For a recipe, my wife requested that I get her some " shelled almonds." I knew that she meant "whole almonds sans shells"; however, Generation X employees at three stores showed me whole almonds with their shells intact. At one of the three I overheard a young employee joking with another regarding my (to her) confused request. What does Ms. Grammar think of my recent forays into the world of retail customer service?

Thomas J. Walach
Chicago, Ill.

It is curious that a person is said to be undressed and a package unwrapped, whereas an almond and a potato in comparable states are properly called shelled and peeled. In cases like these the two forms reflect a thought pattern in which un designates tasks that remain to be done or have been reversed (unwashed, unpacked, untied ), and the lack of un designates tasks that have been done involving some kind of removal (skinned, gutted, cored ). Ignorance of such niceties of our language, it seems to me, is its own punishment.

wordct1 picture When I am sick, I often say "I do not feel well." My husband always corrects me, saying that I must be talking about my tactile senses, and tells me to say "I do not feel good." I tell him that I have yet to see a "Get Good Soon" sympathy card at the card shop. Am I wrong?

Linda Armstrong
Liberty, Mo.

No, you're not. Feel confuses people because it can serve either as a garden-variety transitive or intransitive verb or as a slightly more rarefied "copula," or linking verb. Consider the difference between "When I check the dog for ticks, I feel carefully behind his ears" and "When I check the dog for ticks, I feel like a responsible person: I feel careful ." In the first case feel is being modified by an adverb (carefully ). In the second case it is linking the subject to an adjective (careful ), which is modifying not the verb but the subject itself. (To confirm our grasp of this point, let's ponder what "I feel badly " means. Despite what most people seem to think, badly is an adverb only, and therefore it must be modifying feel . This sentence, then, does have to do with a deficient tactile sense. "I feel bad " is the way to signify discomfiture.)

Well, too, confuses people, and for a similar reason: it can serve either as an adverb, modifying a verb ("He swimswell now that he has taken lessons"), or as an adjective, modifying a noun or pronoun ("He iswell now that he has taken his medicine"). As you can see, the two constructions can look quite a lot alike--the difference is in what they mean.

Indeed, "I feel well " could be referring to your tactile abilities--just as "Time flies when you're having fun" could be a command. The only thing is, it's not. "I feel well " is a perfectly good way to describe your state of health. "I feel good " would also work well--although it is perhaps more descriptive of a mental state.

wordct2 picture I saw this sentence in a local newspaper today, in an article about a football player: "Against the Vols' four toughest opponents . . . Manning literally performed surgery on some of the conference's best defenses." And in a piece by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in The New York Review of Books: "On the minority side an enormous fuss is now being made over adding a little extra child care, some odd bits of child nutrition aid, perhaps a little foster care: literally arranging flowers on the coffin of the provision for children in the Social Security Act." I have noticed such usages of the word literally many times in the past few years--that is, as a term of emphasis. What is your feeling about the correctness of this usage? What might serve as an alternative--one that preserves the original meaning of literally yet at the same time allows writers to convey the emphasis they evidently so desire?

Jim Johnston
Chattanooga, Tenn.

The figurative use of literally is like the common cold: widespread and evidently incurable. Certainly it's objectionable. For one thing, the whole idea is self-contradictory. For another, the results are often unintentionally so funny that the speaker or writer might as well have slipped on a banana peel--and few people think it's good form to do that.

Bless you, though, for recognizing that people who misuse the word have some goal in mind other than to make themselves ridiculous. The best alternative to misusing literally tends to be simply to leave it out and let one's figure of speech do its job. If one doesn't trust that figure of speech to make the point, then the figure is the problem, and weighing it down with literally isn't going to help.

Have you recently had a dispute about language which you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 745 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@aol.com.

Illustrations by Mark Kseniak

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May, 1996; Word Court; Volume 277, No. 5; page 124.

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