Book review: Quite Literally

Journalist Wynford Hicks first published Quite Literally: Problem Words and How to Use Them in 2004, but the paperback edition became available only in the last year. Focusing on British English, this book is part usage dictionary, part writing and grammar guide, and part vocabulary builder. Hicks begins by acknowledging the divide between prescriptivists and descriptivists when it comes to usage (or “conservatives” and “radicals” as he calls them) and says, “In their extreme form both these positions are ridiculous and unhelpful. They make the problem of problem words worse.” He adds, “Many of these contentious grammatical points are difficult – perhaps impossible – to resolve. My intention in this book is to provide practical advice, but nobody can claim to have written the last word on any of them.”

Hicks’s alphabetical list includes words that are often misspelled (e.g., “accidentally, not accidently”), words that are often confused (e.g., rack versus wrack), and words that are often misused (e.g. “anticipate is often misused as a pompous variant of expect (we don’t anticipate rain). It is also used by careful writers to mean forestall or act in advance or come before.”). Hicks also covers some points about punctuation—the serial comma, for example, and the correct use of square brackets)—as well as writing style, as in this excerpt:


Fowler used the term ‘elegant variation’ for the habit of calling a spade a tool or a horticultural implement to avoid repeating the word spade. It was a fault, he said, committed by ‘second-rate writers, those intent rather on expanding themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly’. What he called the fatal influence was the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence.

It’s as easy now as it was in Fowler’s day (the 1920s) to find examples of this:

IPC took her [Sly Bailey] on in 1989 and by 1994, aged 31, she was appointed to the board of the publishing company, becoming its youngest ever member. The Spurs fan continued to work her way up through the ranks. (Guardian)

Part of Roseanne’s behaviour can be explained by the comic’s natural competitiveness. (John Lahr)

In this case too why not ‘her’ for ‘the comic’s’?…

This kind of variation (David Beckham… the footballer, Zadie Smith, the novelist, Brad Pitt… the actor) is always irritating and occasionally confusing. (pp. 236–37)

As this example shows, throughout the book Hicks draws from published works to show that even seasoned, professional writers misuse words in ways that can misrepresent information or confuse readers. Hicks’s focus on the audience is one of the reasons I like this book: although he teaches you the correct definitions of autarchy (absolute power) and autarky (self-sufficiency), he adds, “the two are confused and neither is necessary – why not use absolute power and self-sufficiency?” (p. 18) Similarly, after explaining why “beg the question” doesn’t mean “raise the question” or “avoid the question,” he advises, “Use beg the question in its traditional sense only if you are confident your readers will understand you.” (p. 186) Context is everything, Hicks aptly conveys. Words like obloquy (disgrace) and otiose  (superfluous) may have their place in literary works, even though they may sound pretentious and confuse readers in news reporting. (And if I were better at retaining information I read, I would have found Hicks’s book an entertaining way to learn new words.)

Throughout the book, Hicks continually acknowledges that usage changes and language evolves—something many grammar guides fail to do. I also like that Hicks points out important differences between American and British usage:


in American refers to looks and means ugly; homely in British refers to character and means friendly, kindly…Use this word with care to avoid confusion and offence. (p. 104)


in Britain to table a proposal is to put it on the agenda (to bring it to the table) whereas in the US it’s to withdraw it from the agenda indefinitely (to take it away from the table).

Quite Literally is an interesting, engaging, often humorous read, but for the professional editor, that’s where its role should end. Because the book tries to cover so many aspects of writing in its 250 pages—style, usage, grammar, spelling—it does a thorough job of none of them, and it shouldn’t be considered an authoritative reference by any working editor, who’d be well advised to invest in an actual usage dictionary. I’ve also never understood why books such as Hicks’s attempt to cover spelling at all (unless it’s for padding); those problem words are either completely misspelled and would come up in a spell check or are just variants (“realise, not realize”) whose use depends on a publication’s house style more than anything else. Still, I would recommend Quite Literally as an easily digestible glimpse into British English usage. Hicks offers readers a good reminder of the value of clarity and succinctness, and even veteran editors will learn from the book.

And what does Hicks say about “literally”?


features in all style and usage guides. Don’t use it when you don’t mean it, they say. ‘He literally exploded with anger’ is absurd. But do use it if you need to make clear that a stale metaphor is, for once, an accurate statement. ‘He literally died laughing’ could be true…

Others seem to think that by putting ‘almost’ in front of ‘literally’ they can make it work:

The people of the rebuilt Oradour lived, almost literally, within this history. (Adam Nossiter)

But how can something be ‘almost literally’ true? Either it is true or it isn’t…

Because literally is so generally misused, some people feel that they have to add an intensifier like ‘quite’ – to say ‘I really mean it’… In turn ‘quite literally’ becomes the standard phrase… And so for people who want to say ‘I really mean it’, a further intensifier is needed. Both examples come from the Guardian:

Lee Westwood has backed himself to win the Sun City Golf Challenge after an abysmal year by his standards. Quite literally, in fact. The Workshop player put a sizeable wager on himself.

In Sicily one Vittorio Greco has gone to his grave. Quite literally, in fact. Vittorio was checking progress on a family tomb when he slipped, struck and died on the spot.

Quite literally, in fact – or literally, literally, literally. Why not give this word a rest? (pp. 131–33)

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