Living in a Multilingual World (The One About my Inner Linguistic Norman Bates)

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Say “literally” once more. C’mon, I dare you

I literally died that night”. No, you didn’t, I thought, looking at my work colleague straight in the eye. Although I could “literally” kill you right now. Smother you with one of the cushions from the Family Learning Room, if you like.

No, I am not a murderer. At least not of the homicidal variety. But when it comes to grammar… well, let us just say that there are a few words and constructions whose misuse awakens my inner Norman Bates.

It is ironic that I am more permissive of modern linguistic fads in my native tongue, Spanish, than I am of my adopted one, English. I have no idea what that says about me but perhaps my attitude owes more to a certain disdain for the Royal Spanish Academy and its zealous role in enforcing obeisance to the language tsars.

However when it comes to English, I have no shortage of gripes. Not to the point of a “Mr Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells”, shooting off letters to The Daily Telegraph every two days to complain about the difference between “use” and “usage”, but certainly with what I call linguistic laziness. The “I can’t be bothered to do better” attitude. The English language is one of the richest lexica there are in the world, formed from the amalgamation of different cultures. To treat it as if it were an arid, barren land, bereft of adjectives and adverbials is a crime, in my opinion. Culprits should be sentenced. I can think of no better punishment than to write a thousand times: “it’s” is the contraction of “it is” whereas “its” is the possessive form of “it”. A thousand times, literally.

I know that this impassioned (fanatical, you say? Nah, please, let’s not get too heavy here, shall we?) position puts me on the side of traditionalists. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m perfectly OK with double negatives (as long as they are used to reinforce an opinion) and the replacement of “more than” by “over” as in “for over thirty years”. At the end of the day it is communication that we are talking about here.

Where I draw a line is in those words and phrases that are bandied about as if there were no consequences beyond their utterance. Yes, there are consequences! We are all human after all. There is no such thing as “more unique”, just “unique”; do not give “110%”, 100% is enough, thanks; do not “literally die of laughter” because if you die, how come you are telling me the story? And, please, please, please, do not get overexcited and do not be overtired. Just be excited and tired (not both at the same time, of course). When did we become a nation of “overs”? Is it to do with cricket? Well, I can’t play the game and I do not understand the rules.

As I mentioned before, traditionalist, I am not. I love the freedom of the English language, its linguistic institution-free status. One of the reasons, I believe, why it has flourished and become the lingua franca worldwide. But, if we want to preserve the beauty of this language, we ought to be more proactive and less laisez-faire. Let us be bothered, let us do better and use the wide vocabulary that different cultures have bestowed upon Shakespeare’s language. Otherwise my inner linguistic Norman Bates will keep coming out. I mean that literally, by the way.

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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