The Grammarphobia Blog

Trench warfare?

Q: A friend often sends me tidbits from your website, so I decided to visit the site. I was surprised to see you say on your Authors page that Stewart “was experiencing journalism in the trenches—literally.” I’ve always understood “literally” to mean just that, but unless Stewart was a foreign correspondent in the trenches in World War I (or somewhere comparable), shouldn’t you have said “figuratively”?

A: As we say on the Authors page, Stewart reported on wars in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. And as a war correspondent in Vietnam, he did indeed experience journalism in the trenches.

In fact, he spent time in foxholes, tunnels, bunkers, and trenches.  If you go to the website of the Third Battalion, 12th Marines, you can see a picture of a trench at Khe Sanh, the site of some of the fighting Stewart covered.

As for “literally,” we agree with you that it should be used to mean word for word or to the letter. But a lot of people use it loosely for emphasis.

In fact, so many people have used “literally” this way that the looser meaning is showing up in dictionaries. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, says it can legitimately be used as “pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis.”  

We don’t endorse that usage, but we acknowledge that there’s a case to be made for the looser meaning. If you’d like a second opinion, check out the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower’s article on “literally” in Slate.

By the way, the noun “trench” didn’t always mean a ditch dug as a defense against enemy fire or assault—or, for that matter, a ditch dug in peacetime.

When it entered English in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a path or track cut through a wood or forest; an alley; a hollow walk.” It was adapted from the Old French trenche (a cut, a gash, etc.).

The English word came to mean a ditch in the 15th century and a defensive military excavation in the early 16th century.

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