Two wrongs don’t make a right… but there sometimes comes a point when a ‘mistake’ becomes correct English, whether we like it or not.
As a young teacher in Germany, I put a lot of effort into ensuring that my students didn’t answer the question “How are you?” with “Good”. In those days, if you said “I’m good” you were boasting about your moral superiority. The adjective they needed was well. Unfortunately, I also had to put a lot of effort into teaching them that good was an adjective, and well was an adverb, as in “She speaks English very well.” No wonder they were confused. So now that I’ve got used to it, I think it’s quite a relief that it’s fine to say “I’m good” – and that this has been included in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary since 2005.
Of course there are always purists who insist that standards are slipping and the dictionary should be a bulwark against the careless use of language. Nowadays dictionary editors say that they describe the language; they don’t prescribe how it should be used. So, if enough people are using a word in a particular way, that usage finds its way into the dictionary. It’s interesting to look at the history of the second sense in the entry for literally in the OALD over the years. Back in the 1960s, the dictionary still believed that it should only be used, well, literally:
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 2nd edition (1963)
So in that sentence, we were to understand that those children were truly close to death from hunger, but by 1989 and the 4th edition, all pretence that the meaning was still literal has been abandoned:
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 4th edition (1989)
As the new century dawned it was clear that literally was being used figuratively:
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 6th edition (2000)
And it was spelt out clearly in 2005 – literally was not to be understood literally:
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 7th edition (2005)
until the formulation was found that has continued into the present edition:
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 8th edition (2010), Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 9th edition (2015), Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 10th edition (2020)
These sentence adverbs seem to be particularly prone to this kind of change. Just think of the controversy around hopefully. When I was at school a sentence like “Hopefully, this won’t take too long” would have acquired some red underlining from the teacher. Hopefully meant ‘full of hope’, as in the adage “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive”. But as early as the 1930s, originally in American English, and certainly by the 60s when I was at school, hopefully was being used to mean ‘it is hoped’ or ‘let us hope’. This definition is included without comment in the OALD 3rd edition in 1974, but by the next edition, in 1989, the editors saw fit to include a warning. Perhaps there had been complaints!
Some careful speakers use hopefully only in pattern 2 to modify a verb, but its use in pattern 1 [= modifying the whole sentence: Hopefully, we’ll arrive before dark.] is now widely accepted.
If enough people find it useful, an expression will become an accepted usage. Initially, though, it will often meet resistance. My own pet hate is another of these adverbs, one that is changing its meaning before our very eyes: purposefully.
The OALD defines it like this:
But I keep hearing it used to mean the same as ‘on purpose’ or ‘purposely’. That hasn’t made it into OALD yet, but if we look at the entry from the native speaker dictionary, it has already sneaked in:
So I shall no doubt have to give up on that one, just as I have on disinterested used to mean uninterested and convince somebody to do something instead of persuade.
Of course, if the ‘mistake’ is one you’ve always made yourself, you feel pleased when it becomes so common that it is no longer considered a mistake. Although I theoretically know the difference, I’ve sometimes got muddled when I’m speaking over hone sth and home in on sth. Imagine my delight when I discovered that in the new, 10th edition of OALD hone in on sth has been added as a legitimate variant:
Currently, the variant hone in is labelled ‘less frequent’, but that’s one to watch – in the newest corpora, it seems to me to be taking over. So obviously I’m not the only one who got them mixed up.
English, unlike some languages, does not have an ‘Academy’ that watches over its purity. This might be one of the reasons that some people expect the Oxford dictionary to be the arbiter of what is correct. But language is constantly changing, and each new edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary changes to reflect that. And it will continue to hone in on new uses for literally centuries to come. Hopefully.
Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.
Thanks won’t be enough!