Stop using 'Let Alone' Incorrectly

But that’s precisely the situation where “literally” is most necessary. If I were complaining about a list having 70 elements, I could just say it had 70 elements, and I wouldn’t need to say “literally”, because it’d be obvious that I wasn’t being hyperbolic.

And yes, there are other words that can be used in place of “literally”, but they don’t help, because all of them are subject to the same use as a non-literal intensifier that “literally” is.

“The list has over 8,000 elements.” If you want emphasis, “The list has over 8,000 elements, which is (ridiculous/unusable/”.

I agree with the others that this is totally inverting the proper meaning of the phrase – a very clear solecism.

I’m sort of gratified to see some of the usual defenders of descriptivism agree with that. But wait … what about “I could care less”? What about “my head literally asploded”? Isn’t that also “totally inverting” the original proper meaning, or, dare I say, the original literal meaning?

Can one not imagine a scenario where repeated incorrect use of “let alone” eventually either robs it of any real meaning, or even acquires a contradictory meaning to its original one through endless repetition of the pattern? Would it not then be reasonable to say, as we do for “I could care less”, don’t try to apply logic to the evolution of English, and don’t try to direct it prescriptively, but just accept it for what it is, since we all (allegedly) understand the current meaning?

Honestly, I don’t think this obviously incorrect usage is different in kind from these other examples that are now well accepted. Its only real crime is that it hasn’t (yet) caught on widely.

Not that I think we should accept it. I think it just bolsters my argument for, like, yunno, fighting stupid language abuses and excusing them as, like, just colloquialisms, yanno what I’m saying’? Because I literally could care less.

Is this really a trend? You’ve given a couple of examples, but it doesn’t seem like enough to qualify as a trend. I certainly haven’t noticed.

That said, maybe I don’t notice because it’s not confusing in the slightest. The object of “let alone” is (by definition) the more obvious and dramatic of the two cases being compared. So obvious that my brain reverses the sense of the comparison without me even thinking about it.

If I don’t need to stop reading to parse a usage, then it’s something I don’t really need to care about IMO. I doubt anyone’s getting confused by this.

Sounds like that’s laying the groundwork for exactly the kind of descriptivist apologia we’ll be hearing if and when this deplorable usage becomes more widespread.

P.S.- I’m fully on board with descriptivism. I just draw the bounds somewhat more conservatively than some others. As we can see here, the difference between “correct” or “incorrect” usage – or if you prefer, standard vs non-standard English – is a constantly shifting gray area that is highly subjective.

Stop telling people what to do, let alone doing it online.

This one doesn’t really bother me, because it conserves meaning. We still have the phrase, it still means the same thing, we’re just tweaking the word order a bit in a way that isn’t going to confuse anybody.

Contrast with a different thing that really does bother me - “salty” in the metaphorical sense used to mean sailor-like, most often in vulgarity of language, but perhaps in seagoing experience and knowledge. Now it means resentful, jealous, frustrated, or any other shading of mad, sad, or bad. So we’re giving up a rich, colorful metaphor in favor of one that also annihilates a number of other nuances of feeling. There’s no fighting it, of course, but I think it’s justifiable to feel salty about that one.

So, not literally 8000 entries then.

How about “8,042, to be precise.”

They don’t have the same problem, though, because the contexts where those words are ambiguous are different than the ones where “literally” is ambiguous. And, in fact, many are less often ambiguous, like “genuinely” or “actually.” Heck, words like “specifically” and “exactly” are not ambiguous at all.

I consider this lament over the word “literally” to be overwrought. It’s not like this is a new linguistic shift–the use of “literally” in a hyperbolic sense dates back to the 1700s. Literally has always had both meanings in the lifetime of everyone currently alive, yet you’d never know that by the constant complaints.

There is literally a difference between the misuse of let alone and phrases like I could care less.

The latter is a segment of casual language, usually spoken but sometimes in casual online use. The meaning is absolutely clear and has been since it first came into popular use. Moreover, it can have shades of meaning, for emphasis, for sarcasm, for flippancy, for dismissal.

Use of let alone, though, is almost completely confined to formal or “proper” writing. We won’t see it very often in Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or texting. The reason for careful writing in formal language is exactly to limit confusion, to keep readers from mentally stumbling when running a sentence through their brains. Improper use of let alone creates exactly those stumbles.

When descriptivists complain, it’s not about drawing the line in the wrong place, but that they’re ignoring the whole complex topography of language with many lines, planes, curves, and dimensions.