Unfortunately for language purists the “grammatically challenged” continue to contaminate the way we write and speak and have done so since the first, primitive grunt. I confess I am one of the challenged.
Recently, I submitted a manuscript for technical review and it was returned with numerous corrections. For example, I’d described one character’s face as being “wreathed in a smile.” Wreathed, the editor noted, means to encase or warp which can’t be done to a smile. Intimidated, I changed the words to read, “her face was brightened by a smile.” The description is now without error but I find it too “dental” for my liking.
Author Ammon Shea points out in his book, Bad English, that some writers, mostly the famous, have a stomach for defying the tyrants of language etiquette. Vladimir Nabokov in Invitation to a Beheading wrote of his character: “And with his eyes he literally scoured the corner of the cell.” (Excerpted from Bad English published by Penguin Random House Company 2014 in The Week, June 20, 2014, pg. 41) Here, Nabokov uses literally as an intensifier which is a no-no in refined grammar. The word to be used is figuratively, as the author does not intend for readers to imagine his protagonist has plucked out his eyes and begun scrubbing the walls with them. Likewise, Mark Twain chortles that after bamboozling his friends into paying him to white wash a fence, Tom Sawyer, from the novel by the same title, was “literally rolling in wealth.” Well, again, not actually.
In his or her effort to communicate, a writer’s nature is to play with language. Sometimes words are stretched and twisted like pliable dough not to appease grammarians but to amuse, enlighten and dazzle the reader. To these ends, correctness must take a back seat. If writers cowered before the rules of grammar, which purist presume should never change, style would suffer and we’d be subjected to the boring, repetitive sentences of stories like, Dick, Jane and their dog Spot.