Actually, Literally, What Your Crutch Word Says About You

Joe Biden said literally quite literally a lot last night, which was fodder for much semantic mockery around the Internet. If there's one thing moderately word-nerdy folks (folks, he said that, too) hate, it's the repeated and possibly improper use of one of those crutch words.

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Joe Biden said literally quite literally a lot last night in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He also said figuratively, and he alluded to Barack Obama's steel spine. He also mentioned Osama bin Laden and General Motors (one is dead and one is alive, he said). But back to literally. Politico reports that Biden used the word 9 times as recorded by transcription service TVEyes, others counted as many as 10 uses. It's enough that if it were the word-of-choice in a convention speech drinking game, less hardy sorts might be literally intoxicated by the end of his turn on stage, and so it was fodder for much semantic mockery around the Internet. If there's one thing moderately word-nerdy folks (folks, he said that, too) hate, it's the repeated and possibly improper use of one of those crutch words. In truth, we hate a lot of things, but it's fun to hate crutch words.

Crutch words are those expressions we pepper throughout our language as verbal pauses, and sometimes as written ones, to give us time to think, to accentuate our meaning (even when we do so mistakenly), or just because these are the words that have somehow lodged in our brains and come out on our tongues the most, for whatever reason. Quite often, they do little to add meaning, though. Sometimes we even use them incorrectly. Almost always, we don't need them at all, which doesn't mean we won't persist in using them. Here's our list of frequently used crutches, and what your crutch of choice has to reveal about you.

Actually. Actually, you may already know how we feel about actually. I've argued that it's worse than literally because it offers up sheer attitude in place of literally's intellectual pretensions. It is literally with a slap in the face. Imagine Biden replacing his literallys with actuallys. For instance, "I want to show you the character of a leader who had what it took when the American people literally actually stood on the brink of a new depression.” It's almost like saying the American people had been claiming to be on that brink for years, crying wolf as it were, and only now, finally, did it actually happen. Actually, for once, it turned out to be true! You could read it other ways, of course, but if actually is your crutch, you are a little bit angry, maybe, and certainly adamant about making your point with a bit of a zing. You are not boring, actually, and you'd probably do OK in a bar brawl.

As it were. If you use this, which I did above, you are possibly worse than a literally-dropper. You're the most self-aware of crutch-word users, because you know you're saying something rather cliched, a hackneyed expression or at best an aging metaphor, and yet you're going forward with it anyway. The trick is that you're doing it with the acknowledgement that you already know exactly what you're doing, thank you very much. You are the equivalent of the guy with a broken leg doing tricks on his crutches. It's a crutch-word brag.

Basically. You like to cut to the chase, to synopsize, to bring things down to old bottom line of what's really, truly important. You are always downsizing, cutting the clutter, throwing out a sweater for every new one you purchase. So, basically, this is what you do. You talk for a long time, maybe, and then you sum up what you really meant to say with a basically. Everything else was just chatter, but it got you to where you were going, so, basically, that's OK with you. Basically, that's it.

In a weird way. You are the experimental hallucinatory drug user of crutch words. Or maybe you just feel things, like, a lot. Whatever: You're very emotive. So, in a weird way, your expression makes sense, at least to you, though everyone else is, like, "Why does he keep saying in a weird way? What does that even mean?" Who cares? You're marching to the beat of your own drummer down a path that only you can interpret, falling down and wallowing in the mud if you feel like it, just because, and in a weird way, that's great.

Um. (Also, er, ah, uh, or any guttural noise you might make as your brain clicks into gear and onto an actual word.) You are not very good at giving speeches, and listening to you can be painful, but that doesn't mean you're not a very nice person. Um.

At the end of the day. If you use the English language's worst phrase, you are the forward thinker of crutch-word users. You know each day has an end, and some day we will reach it, and therefore this phrase will be relevant, except really it's not. See also ultimately. If you need an ultimately or an at the end of the day to give your point punch, you should probably just phrase your point a bit differently, or simply place verbal emphasis on the words that hold the most meaning. "At the end of the day, we all learned something" can just as easily be said as "We all learned something." At the end of the day gives you a sense of backstory with no real backstory, so it's dissatisfying at best, the end of an experience without the context or even sometimes the beginning. Hold your ultimately.

Like. You are a teenaged girl who smacks her gum a lot while talking and, like, OMG, can you believe you said that? Like, yes, you did. See also, "She was all...and I was all....and he was all..."

For the record/For what it's worth. You like to underline things when you say them, or maybe use a highlighter, or maybe both. For what it's worth, that's just what you do. For the record, it's not like it's a crutch, exactly, but you just really feel the need to set things straight. You are a semantical explainer. You probably shrug very expressively.

Seriously. This is the crutch-word version of the excessive exclamation point. You really, really mean what you say, and you really, really want people to understand what you mean. Seriously. Seriously!!! When used with a question mark, this becomes both accusation and evidence of great shock or surprise at the implied wrongdoing. Seriously? You're shaking your head right now knowingly, aren't you?

Honestly. The frequency with which you deploy this word is inversely related to the frequency with which you are actually honest.

Always/Never. You see in black and white and never shades of grey, which means that you are often wrong, but that hardly matters; you consider these absolutes as necessary to the points you want to make. The problem is, you leave yourself wide open for criticism, because for every always there is almost always at least one never. Nonetheless! You believe in a world of open-and-shut cases, and you are probably a very successful blogger.

Apparently. (See also, to a lesser extent, reportedly.) This is another crutch oft used by the blogger, because it's a way of getting out of a tricky situation. If someone else says it, you see, you're free and clear to repeat it. Apparently sheds a bit of dubiousness upon the fact or analysis, and therefore, you've covered yourself if it turns out not to be true. It was only apparent! Not your fault ... except, you did repeat it.

Literally. You may be Joe Biden, who used the word so frequently last night that the Obama campaign actually, apparently, reportedly, "took out an ad on the term literally on Twitter, so that searches for the term turn up a promoted tweet by @BarackObama." Many censured him for not using the word properly. But about that alleged misuse, Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski told us that Biden's use of literally is hyperbole (as opposed to an error) and developed in highbrow literary contexts, including by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, even: "'Lift him out,' said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit." Dryden in 1687 complained that his "daily bread is litt'rally implor'd" and Pope in 1708 wrote "Euery day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same." You know, Dryden, Pope, Dickens, Biden.

That this use pisses people off isn't new, either: An entry from the Dictionary of English Usage explains that since 1922, there has been "a steady stream of protesters and viewers-with-alarm" over the hyperbolic use of the word. Nevertheless (and don't say irregardless), it's one of the established living uses of literally, to add emphasis by "placing the same intensifier in front of some figurative word or phrase which cannot be taken literally."

Even if literally isn't wrong, it's still a crutch when it creeps into a speech 9 or 10 times. In order to prevent that sort of thing from happening, speechy types say you should practice, record and watch yourself speaking, and maybe even just slow down. Other cruel people suggest you snap a rubber band against your wrist whenever you note yourself using one. Ouch.

The upside to crutch words, though, is that they help keep things entertaining. And at the end of the day, that's what really matters, ultimately: The opportunity for one word-nerd to mock another is what keeps the linguistic world turning on its semantical axis. Though, for the record, as Sokolowski tells us, the words that spiked in Merriam-Webster lookups yesterday did not include literally at all, but, in fact, rhetoric and stem-winder. If either of those is your crutch word, you are very impressive indeed.

Update: After we published this list of crutch words, the people spoke, and there are so many more out there. Here's a continuation of our literal dictionary.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.