Editing the world

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From the description of Alison Dianotto's "Downworthy: A browser plugin to turn hyperbolic viral headlines into what they really mean":

Downworthy replaces hyperbolic headlines from bombastic viral websites with a slightly more realistic version. For example:

  • "Literally" becomes "Figuratively" "Will Blow Your Mind" becomes "Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment"
  • "One Weird Trick" becomes "One Piece of Completely Anecdotal Horseshit"
  • "Go Viral" becomes "Be Overused So Much That You'll Silently Pray for the Sweet Release of Death to Make it Stop"
  • "Can't Even Handle" becomes "Can Totally Handle Without Any Significant Issue"
  • "Incredible" becomes "Painfully Ordinary"
  • "You Won't Believe" becomes "In All Likelihood, You'll Believe"
  • … and so on. (see the spoilers list below)

Mike Walker's "Literally, a better browsing experience" is a more tightly-focused plugin, literally just changing "literally" to "figuratively". I learned about both of these from Will Oremus, "Browser extension changes 'literally' to 'figuratively'" (The Sydney Morning Herald 4/28/2014), sent in by R.P.

The descriptions of these browser plugins reminded me of a antique geekish prank that I once heard about. X was a notoriously cranky prescriptivist, fond of correcting others' usage both in speech and in writing. And X was also a user of the open-source programmable editor emacs.

So Y and Z added the following feature to X's copy: Whenever a line of text scrolled off the top of the window, it was automatically edited to introduce X's most hated solecisms: exchanging "there" and "their" or "it's" and "its"; substituting "infer" for "imply"; and so on, including maybe "literally" for "really".

This is my memory of a story that I heard several decades ago, and it may have improved (or decayed) in the telling. Or it may have been someone's fantasy of a prank they would have liked to have played.  So if you know the truth, or have heard another version of the story, let us know.

But like Downworthy, this was an example of code that edits the virtual world where we spend more and more of our time. And since Downworthy is an open-source programmable joke, and everybody uses a browser these days, the stage is set: if you want to baffle and infuriate your friends by hacking their browsers, it's as simple as editing Downworthy's dictionary, whose format is transparent even to non-programmers:

var dictionary={
	"replacements": {
		"A Single" : "A",
		"Absolutely" : "Moderately",
		"Amazing" : "Barely Noticeable",
		"Awesome" : "Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working",

I do NOT advocate doing this. But if you discover that the internet has suddenly started annoying (or amusing) you more than usual, you might want to check your plugins.



  1. Stan Carey said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 6:22 am

    The problem with the literally→figuratively plugin, as I said in a comment to the Guardian report, is that people generally aren't using literally to mean figuratively (though that's a common assumption) — they're more often using it to intensify figurative statements, which isn't the same thing at all. So instead of "fixing" a loose usage, it warps the meaning of the original text: it actively introduces error. But I'm preaching to the choir here.

    People have been using literally non-literally (and literarily) for literally centuries. Dickens, Joyce, C. Brontë, and Nabokov are among its better known users. No one complains about the same thing essentially having happened to really, very, etc., but there's something about literally that brings out the pedants in huge numbers. It's like the hopefully of emphatic modifiers times a thousand.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 6:29 am

    What about this:

    ," → The writer of this text has been terminally indoctrinated by US-American copyeditor-ideologues.

    (First I was gonna write
        ," → ",
        ." → ".
    which would very often (though not* always) be accurate for commas but much less so for periods.)
    [* It's exceedingly rare that commas "logically" belong at the end of a quote and inside of it, and I can't think of a non-contrived example or one not involving programming languages. The following case of quoted speech

    "Hello there," he said […]

    deserves mention because I think it's wrong too but I've seen an incorrect argument for this, claiming that there's in fact a comma logically inside. If we have a case where there is one inside (and it's not always clear whether we have such a case, given that the comma is very often a constituent separator and is also often eaten by other, stronger punctuation marks within a punctuation mark cluster), I'd say the outer comma is more important.]

  3. leoboiko said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 7:14 am

    I'm much more partial to xkcd's "make reading news more fun" replacements. There are extensions for Chrome and Firefox.

  4. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    When people say 'They are using literally to mean figuratively', they are not using 'mean' to mean 'mean'. It is quite common to say 'using X to mean Y', when the underlying sense is 'using X where Y would be appropriate'.

  5. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 8:15 am

    Commenter "Andrew (not the same one)" writes that "[i]t is quite common to say 'using X to mean Y'[] when the underlying sense is 'using X where Y would be appropriate'" to mean "the writer's intentionality is quite commonly utterance-external and not -internal", which is something I appropriately mean to disagree with :-)

    In any event, does that mean that a euphemism is "saying X to mean Y" in order to avoid appearing appropriately mean?

  6. Mark Young said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 8:17 am

    One thing I've noticed about "literally" is that, unlike "really", the intensifier reading doesn't entail the non-intensifier reading. In fact, they'd seem to have opposing truth values.

    [He was really funny.] |- [He was funny. Really.]
    [The population literally exploded.] |-/- [The population exploded. Literally.]

    It doesn't justify the claim that the intensifier usage is wrong, but it might explain why it's so annoying to so many people.

    Are there other words/phrases with both intensifier and non-intensifier readings for comparison purposes? I "noticed" this but I didn't really/literally check it against real world data!

    [(myl) I'm not sure that you're right about this. Here's a quotation from (fictional zombie) Paul McCartney:

    When that textbook nailed me in the noggin, I felt rage, y'know. I'd never felt true rage before — maybe some very mild anger, or a bit of frustration — but I started seeing red, and then blue, and then purple, an' that. Literally. If somebody came across my path right at that moment, it's a guarantee I would've hurt them. Badly.


  7. Stephen said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 8:59 am

    @Stan Carey

    In response to a post by Tom Chivers in The Telegraph


    I made the following comment, that I think is germane.


    Tom, In most if not all of your talk about language you show your lack of scientific training. You put forward the argument (and hence seem to think) that finding a few old instances where a work is used in certain way means that it has always (or for a very long time) been generally acceptable to use the word that way.

    The scientific approach would be to see how frequently the word is used in one way and in the other way and how that has changed over time.

    If, say, pre-1980 'literally' was used to mean 'in actual fact' >95% of the time then it is quite reasonable for many people who were adults by 1980 to think that using 'literally' in any other way is new and, in some sense wrong.

    If pre-1980 on the other hand 'really' & 'truly' were only used to mean 'in actual fact' 50% (maybe even 60-80%) of the time and used and as intensifiers the rest of the time, then the same people will have been used to and comfortable with that usage all of their lives and so will not think there is anything new or wrong about it.

    So, if you want to prove the point that 'literally', 'really' & 'truly' should all be treated the same in a convincing manner I think that you should do an analysis of changing usage (the sort of thing that comes on on Language Log reasonably often) and present your workings and the resulting graphs.

  8. Mark F. said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 9:20 am

    When people use "literally" to intensify figurative expressions, they are not "using X where Y would be appropriate", at least not if X = "literally" and Y = "figuratively". To flag your own figurative use with the word "figuratively" is usually terrible style.

    What they are doing is finding a metaphor not forceful enough, and trying to strengthen it by asserting that it should be taken literally. They are using the word "literally" figuratively. The word "really" is conceptually just as bad, but that use for it have been around longer.

  9. drora said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 9:24 am

    How about "ironic", which is woefully overused in instances where there is no irony?! I also dislike the use of "spectacular" when describing such amusing spectacles as fires, tornados, etc.

  10. neminem said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 10:28 am

    I've run a couple of these GM scripts for a while – one that adds "but then, I'm a moron" to the end of every youtube comment, and another rather sophomoric one that replaces every instance of the phrase "the cloud" with "my butt". Occasionally I forget I have that second one installed, and get rather confused.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:04 am

    Stan Carey: If we're going to do this topic for literally the millionth time, I'd say the prescriptive objection to "literally" starts along the lines that Mark Young said: the meanings are very different. There's no great difference between the two possible meanings of "It was really fantastic" (etymological contradiction and all). Not so for "The boy was literally bouncing off the walls." And since people say that when the boy was just "hyper", people who say it with the literal meaning just won't be understood. They'll have to use some wordier way to say the same thing. "I mean, there was the wall, and he went like this." Hence the perhaps Canutian prescriptions.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:12 am

    Stephen Stiller: I must remember your introduction reply to Tom Chivers when people say that non-restrictive "that" doesn't exist in English.

    Still on the subject of commas, I understand most commas inside quotation marks to be conventional substitutes for periods.

    "That's right," he said.

    There are some "logical" ones.

    "Though, after all," she thought, "the bright colors are mediaeval enough."

    (Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night. Placement of the quotative in the middle of the first quoted sentence seems to have been quite common at the time.)

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:24 am

    Of course, the plug-in would have comical results if any of the text it worked on used "literally" in the allegedly correct way — only the assumption that the "error" is universal or asymptotically approaching universal makes it plausible in even a jocular way.

    Also, it seems pretty unidiomatic to swap in "figuratively" for these usages. If you wanted to say something more idiomatic-sounding that avoided the deprecated usage of "literally" I wonder if e.g. "almost" or "just about" might get you off the hook. Saying X "almost exploded" or Y was "just about bouncing off the walls" makes explicit that the metaphor is not to be taken as reporting an actual empirical fact, while still preserving a lot of its rhetorical force.

  14. Stan Carey said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I sympathise with the peevers' position on this, if not their passion, and said as much in a post on the subject in Jan. 2011. Literally has a specific and useful meaning that can be obscured by the loose usage (which I tend to avoid). I coined literaliterally for when people mean literally literally, but I don't expect it to catch on. Maybe another word will emerge.

  15. Gene Callahan said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    @Stephen: What a snotty and inaccurate comment you made to Chivers' post. So, "scientific training" leads one to believe that THE scientific approach is to mindlessly count things!

    Let me tell you, I must be sure to avoid this sort of training!

  16. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    @ Jerry Friedman

    Stephan Stiller ≠ Stephen

    Your "commas as substitutes for periods" interpretation is something I only partially agree with. Non-abbreviative periods are sentence terminators for when there's no other terminating punctuation mark (! or ?). Commas are used in different functions, but often they are constituent separators.

    One can either interpret your "that's right" example as

    "That's right", he said.

    where there is no need for a period because it's not at the end of a sentence, or one can say that the "underlying" form is

    "That's right.", he said.

    with a constraint at work that you can never, ever have two instances of the set {comma, period} within the same punctuation cluster. Note how this rule is effectively applied when you have a full-sentence quote at the end of the containing sentence. If you have two periods, the inner one wins (why? I'm not sure); if you have a period and a comma, the period always wins. If you have ! or ? (even if separated from the outer final period by a quotation mark), the period loses. In this particular case, the comma might win for either practical reasons (the confusion if things would look like the third word might start a new sentence despite being lowercase) or because we are used to periods being eaten (though they're not normally eaten by commas). I think we want a comma there, so I want it outside because placement inside would be baseless. (Finally, I think it's not possible to interpret the sentence as an underlying

    "That's right,", he said.

    because it's not clear what the function of the internal comma would be: commas separate constituents, but the "he said" is higher up the tree.)

    As for your second example, we might have an actual instance of underlying   ,",   – now the question would be why I would want the outer (ie: the second) comma to win. Because I generally want outer punctuation to win maybe? Because the outer punctuation is more important for the structure of the sentence if it's sentence-medial because it's not surprising to often have a sentence break (for the quoted material) at a place where you'd normally place a comma?

  17. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

    (I should add that the constraint I gave treats abbreviative periods in a special way. And that sentence-final full-sentence quotes creating underlying   .".   seem to be mysterious from a punctuation point of view. And that I don't in fact partially agree with you on what I said I partially agree with you on.)

  18. Stephen said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    @Gene Callahan

    Well I would categorise your response empty of content and rude, and, fortunately, untypical of posts here.

    About being 'snotty', Chivers like to express his opinion on scientific subjects (the URL contains 'tomchiversscience') but frequently shows how little he know about science. He has done that yet again in the article that I linked by, essentially, arguing from the particular to the general.

    He does have the good grace to interact with commenters on his pieces (including myself) but when a flaw in his argument has been demonstrated he has, at least IMO, repeatedly either stopped interacting or resorted to ridicule or abuse.

    You have not pointed to anything in my comment that you believe to be incorrect despite describing it as inaccurate, so I cannot comment on that slur.

    Finally, if you can point out where in my comment I said, or even implied, that "THE scientific approach is to mindlessly count things", I would appreciate it.

    What I clearly said, but which you seem to have missed, is that there is a difference between a word being used infrequently (or even very rarely) in a particular manner and it being used frequently in that particular manner.

    Analysing the frequency of usage of the different manners, gives us data which may help us to understand why people react differently to specific words being used in certain ways.

    There is some counting involved in that process but I really cannot see how anyone could call it mindless.

  19. Adrian said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    I used to have a plugin installed that inserted expletives into online texts. It was excellently done, and quite disconcerting.

  20. CThornett said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

    How about a plug-in that replaces quarrels between a small number of commenters with something more enlightening or entertaining, preferably both?

    (Sorry, but I've been skimming through too many of these in different blogs and forums lately.)

  21. Mark Young said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    Ah. Took me a bit to understand what that quote was showing. It shows that the truth values are not necessarily opposites (someone could literally and figuratively be seeing red at the same time), so I was wrong when I said that.

    I was aiming for something a little different, tho' — something like "If one reading is felicitous, the other is generally not." (OK, I missed!) It's more closely related to my main point, which is that the figurative-intensifying "literally" reading does not entail the figurative-cancelling "literally" reading, and that that's a big part of what drives people mad about the figurative-intensifier usage.

  22. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

    When people use "literally" to intensify figurative expressions, they are not "using X where Y would be appropriate", at least not if X = "literally" and Y = "figuratively". To flag your own figurative use with the word "figuratively" is usually terrible style.

    OK, 'appropriate' is deceptive: just 'true' or 'correct' might be better. Note that the other substitutions brought about by this program aren't meaning-preserving (or effect-preserving) either; they replace what the person actually said with what they should have said if they wanted to say something accurate – which in many cases would actually undermine the point of the utterance.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

    I think Andrew (not . . .) is onto something – if you look at the other examples on the list they are more or less "things no one would bother saying if paraphrased in less hyperbolic terms" with I think the implication that they are thus things that ought not to be said in the first place. But to say that something phrased hyperbolically is not "accurate" is to miss the point of hyperbole, or at least to assume that the rest of the audience is not so clever as the critic and are just a bunch of suckers who are taking the hyperbole at face value rather than discounting it appropriately. Maybe that's sometimes accurate, but I think it's often inaccurate, and risks turning an aesthetic judgment that is typically mixed up with social-class baggage into a moral claim.

    There is in a certain style of language prescriptivism a certain parallel imho to sort of the Bauhaus-to-Brutalist schools of architecture. Ornament Is Bad. Form Should Follow Function, Because Anything Else Is a Lie. Everything Not Stripped Of Ornament Is Kitsch, And Enjoying Kitsch Is Immoral. The common thread is the moralizing of aesthetic preferences which are not shared by everyone in the broader community.

  24. John said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

    I'm waiting for the plug-in that I can plug into my TV. And into the brains of most all politicians.

  25. Adrian Morgan said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

    In my experience, when people use "literally" in the disputed sense, the meaning they're trying to express is "more true than you might think". (I think this is more specific than the obvious truth that they're using it as an intensifier.)

    For example, the expression "he was heartbroken" can be interpreted on at least three different levels of literality:

    (1) Metaphorical and hyperbolic: "he was upset for a while".

    (2) Metaphorical but not hyperbolic: "he was emotionally damaged for life".

    (3) Neither metaphorical nor hyperbolic: "the organ that pumped blood around his body stopped working".

    If someone says "he was literally heartbroken", they are most likely expressing the expectation that the audience's default interpretation would be (1), and saying that in contrast to that interpretation, they actually mean (2). It is relatively more literal.

    If you apply this interpretation ("more true than you might think", "closer to literal than some reference interpretation") every time someone uses non-literal "literally", I predict that you will rarely if ever misunderstand the speaker's intent.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:58 pm

    I apologize to Stephan Stiller and to Stephen for confusing them. I may be able to get to the commas and quotation marks tomorrow.

  27. Dan H said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 3:54 am

    While literally-peeving usually bugs me, I agree with Andrew (not the other one) in this context that the plugin is supposed to be a de-intensifier, not a usage correcter, so switching "literally" to "figuratively" is entirely appropriate. The substitution is being made not because the intensifier use of "literally" is deprecated (although it is) but because it is a common component of hyperbolic headlines.

    Although since it also seems to de-intensify hyperbolic phrases it might actually make more sense to leave the "literally" intact. Otherwise it will rephrase "this will literally blow your mind" as "this will figuratively mildly entertain you".

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    Adrian Morgan: As mentioned here before, the OED has a good definition: "c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’."

    This still leaves the reader or listener to figure out from context how strong a sense is admissible, which is sometime obvious but not always.

    Stephan Stiller: The rules on punctuation with quotation marks were invented by printers. I was surprised at how much trouble I had finding the basis for them. An American named F. Horace Teall said in 1922, "This is because logic is overruled in favor of looks". Maybe I should quote J. W. Brewer, who just said that something unrelated "risks turning an aesthetic judgment that is typically mixed up with social-class baggage into a moral claim."

    People often say that in the old days, periods and commas had to be put inside the quotation marks because if nothing would print next to them on the baseline, they were particularly liable to damage. In a bit of searching, I didn't find any printer actually saying that. Does anyone have such a reference?

    Anyway, printers—not grammarians, philologists, or linguists—seem to have established the rule: when logic would give you a period or comma on each side of the quotation mark, the one inside always wins, and it becomes a period if it was at the end of the outer sentence, a comma if not.

  29. Shadow-Slider said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    What about replacing literally with literary-ly instead?

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