Pietersen and Prescriptivism (ctd.)

In an earlier blogpost, Ash Navrady commented on how the star cricketer Kevin Pietersen was sacked by the English Cricket Board (ECB). Here follows another blogpost, in which Ash again focusses on an issue of prescriptivism, in this case the use of literally, a topical issue it appears!

In my previous blog post, I pursued the idea of prescriptivism in professional sport focussing upon the ECB’s ‘explanation’ for sacking Kevin Pietersen as an illustrative example of Type 2 Prescriptivism discussed in Milroy and Milroy’s Language and Power. Remarkably, subsequent developments in the KP saga have also featured elements of language prescriptivism. In an interview with England’s wicketkeeper Matt Prior, who was dropped from the team during the aforementioned Ashes series due to poor form, Prior was asked whether the changing room would be better off with KP’s absence, to which he controversially replied: “Yes it will.” From a prescriptivist’s perspective, this was not the only inflammatory comment made by Prior during the interview. Concerning his own admission from the team for the Fourth Test in Melbourne, Prior admitted that it “quite literally wrenched my heart out”.

(The friendship between Prior (left) and Pietersen (right) appears to no longer extend to off the field of play.)

Prior’s use of literally here as an emphasiser did not go unnoticed.  On Twitter, Melbourne-based writer Russell Jackson (@rustyjacko) commented: “Flagrant misuse of “literally” by Matt Prior: being dropped “literally wrenched my heart out.” Oh dear.” A response to this tweet came from BBC cricket writer/broadcaster Elizabeth Hammon (@legsidelizzy) who retorted: “jamie Redknapp syndrome” (referring to the ex-professional footballer Jamie Redknapp, who is now a commentator for Sky Sports).


Subsequently, I looked for literally on Factiva, which is an online database comprising tens of thousands of international newspapers and journals full-text articles.  During my search, I came across an article by John-Paul Ford Rojas (2012) from the Telegraph Online which bemoans the use of literally. Ford Rojas argues that the misuse of literally stems from sports broadcasters and commentators and has spread to the domains of politics, illustrated by Nick Clegg’s infamous quip “You see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax”. Ford Rojas complains:

Wayne Rooney was often described as “literally on fire” or “literally playing out of his skin” by sports commentators while a BBC newsreader had said in another sporting context: “You are up against Norwegians who are literally born on skis.”

Another example saw football pundit and former player Alan Shearer apparently embarking on a Lilliputian flight of fancy when he said: “After the first goal went in you could literally see the Derby players shrinking.

Does all this mean that the misuse of literally was initially corrupted by ineloquent sports pundits?

Searching further on Factiva, I found an article by Polly Curtis (2012) from The Guardian, who consulted Radio 4’s debate on the use of literally which was also initiated by Clegg’s statement.  Ironically, listeners tweeted in their suggestions for other culprits of the misuse of literally. Tweeter @dangerhere suggested: “In his youth, Michael Owen was literally a greyhound.” (Sorry, Jamie.)

Evening Post

However, Curtis does go on to inform us that the use of literally has been “used to ‘intensify statements’ as early as the 17th century and misused from the 19th century”. This evidence was presented in 2005 by an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary called  Jesse Sheidlower,  who stated:

As is often the case, though, such abuses have a long and esteemed history in English. The ground was not especially sticky in “Little Women” when Louisa May Alcott wrote: ‘The land literally flowed with milk and honey.’ Tom Sawyer was not turning somersaults on piles of money when Mark Twain described him as ‘literally rolling in wealth’. Jay Gatsby was not shining when Fitzgerald wrote that he ‘literally glowed’. Such examples are easily come by, even in the works of the authors we are often told to emulate.

Thus, while sports commentators, especially Jamie Redknapp, appear to fan the flames of a ‘misuse’ of literally, the usage of the word has literally been around for centuries.

Returning to cricket, how did Kevin Pietersen, a previous victim of the ECB’s Orwellian newspeak, respond to a former teammate’s happiness at his axing, who would dare to use literally in a figurative manner? Quite simply, he tweeted (@KP24):

Kevin Pietersen's tweet

Pietersen’s retort to Prior suggests that he should spend less time doing interviews and more time practising with his county team of Sussex. More importantly, Pietersen’s correct use of fewer rather than less (“Fewer Q&A’s”) again did not go unnoticed.

Ali Martin, cricket writer for The Sun (@Cricket_Ali) and Daniel Brigham (@Cricketer_Dan), Features Editor at The Wisden Crickiter both congratulated KP’s use of language in his reply, though his hashtag #josbuttle, referring to Prior’s up-and-coming wicket keeping rival Jos Buttler, may not have been so ‘appropriate’. 

on Pietersen's use of fewer

Overall, it’s been tough starts to 2014 for KP, controversially sacked from the England Cricket Team, plus having a former team mate acknowledge that the team would be happier with his exclusion too. However, with his excellent grasp between the distinction between fewer and less combined with his an abundance of newly found free time, maybe a new career in writing usage guides beckons for KP, but I wouldn’t bet on Matt Prior getting a free copy.

This entry was posted in MA Leiden, usage features and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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