Posts tagged ‘Language’

July 28, 2015

About Slang

I have one simple and easy piece of advise to give when it comes to slang terms: stay away!  To use an American expression “don’t touch it with a 10-foot pole” – meaning “don’t even go near that one.

If you live in a foreign country and get to the point where you can speak the language rather fluently the temptation is great to adopt slang terms, or maybe dialects and regional expressions.  Some of that can be okay, some might be unavoidable and some should be avoided at all cost – 10-foot pole stuff.

Let’s start with the unavoidable.  I live (lived, will live) in California.  Wide roads with multiple lanes, on-ramps and exits and no cross traffic are called freeways, technically speaking freeways are limited access highways.  So in Northern California we take freeways to get to work/wherever and we refer to them by number.  We would, for example say something like: “I take 280 South and then 880 East to get to work”. In Southern California people also take freeways to work but their they use articles, so they would use “the 405″ to work but the 10” to get to the beach.  What we never ever use in California are things like turnpikes.  That’s for those Eastern folks.

In California we eat subs, not sandwiches and if we talk about you in the plural we will say “you” or something like”you guys” but never y’all.  That’s what they do in the south or mid-west or wherever. So if a foreigner picks up the “y’all habit” when living in “y’all territory” that is pretty much unavoidable and okay.  I use the expression “you guys” all the time, giving away my Californian “heritage”.

So something like: “you guys, let’s take 280 instead of 101 to go to the city” is perfectly acceptable.

Were it gets less acceptable are expressions used by an ethnic or other groups you do not belong to.  If you are a white woman from Germany it will sound stupid if you try and speak like a black kid in the Bronx.  It will also sound stupid if you if try and speak like a surfer dude or your teenage daughter.  It starts with you not sounding authentic and not being able to carry on a whole conversation in that style and ends with you likely using words that are so last week.  That then, instead of making you sound cool, makes you sound lame.

There is also a risk of mixing perceived cool terms, slang and regional vocabulary that do not go together in one sentence making it sound even weirder.  To make this effect clear I always think about  how a foreigner with an accent (because most non-native speakers will retain some form of accent) would sound mixing Swabian words, with Saxon words and a few far northern idiosyncrasies thrown in for good measure.  Add to that a few words my pre-teen son uses with abandon and you have the perfect storm of ridiculousness.  If you do an exercise like that with your own language in mind you’ll undersatad what I mean.

Some of these slang terms eventually make it into the common language by which time they may be carefully adopted in special situations; although I have to say that I find all the “yo, bro” and “whazz up, dude” going on between middle aged men rather annoying.  Something similar goes for women in their 30s, 40s and beyond who scream in high-pitched voices “oh my gosh, this is ,like, so awesome” as if they were 15 years old.  Not so good.

So, again, my advice would be to stay away from the slang and the overly colloquial terms as well as any language that is associated with a specific group you do not belong to.

Of course I am expressing my own views in this blog, not some universal truth but I have seen these things go wrong so many times that I am at least claiming to have a well-informed opinion on this.  An opinion nevertheless.

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July 21, 2015

Articles – and now the exceptions

No rule without exception is the unfortunate truth with most languages – and pretty much any and all other rules.  In a prior post we were talking about the rules for the use of articles in English which leaves us to explore what the exceptions are. Here we go: certain fixed expressions of place, time and movement do not take articles.  Here are some examples:

  • I am going to school – not the school
  • He was in prison – not the prison
  • Let’s stay home tonight – not the home
  • we’ll go by car – not by the car.  However, it is “we’ll take the car” not “we’ll take car”

A more comprehensive list can be found here. Articles are also often dropped after the following expressions: after both, all, sort of, kind of and alike as in these examples:

  • Both boys and girls were playing soccer
  • All family members spent the weekend at the beach house
  • What type of food do you prefer?

Also double expressions often do not have an article:

  • Brother and sister came to visit
  • Cats and dogs often fight
  • We are available day and night

Also the following categories of exception exist: No article is needed for

  1. Words used in a general sense – “women love shoes” – it is a general statement, whether true or not or Japanese food is healthy – in general, not just the dish you are currently enjoying
  2. Countries, towns, continents, etc.  – I live in Germany – okay, there are exceptions to the exception such as “I live in the Netherlands” but the country is called “the Netherlands” (another: The United Kingdom) so it makes sense
  3. Languages – “I used to study Spanish”
  4. Acronyms as long as they are pronounced as one word such as NATO, FIFA, SCOTUS but an article is needed when the letters are pronounced independently such as UN, WHO, NIH, etc
  5. Holidays – Christmas is my favorite holiday.  Halloween is fun.

These are so to speak the official exceptions, those you can read about in books and on other webpages but then there are some that I have encountered repeatedly and I have grown used to but really can’t explain or find a proper explanation for.

Here is what I mean: When speaking about babies people often drop the article.  You will hear sentences like “make sure baby’s head is not covered with a blanket.”  If that sentence addresses a particular set of parents with a specific baby then the sentence should be “make sure the/your baby’s head is not covered with a blanket”.  If, however, one is speaking about babies in general the imperative would not be used and the sentence would be something like “Babies’ heads should never be covered by a blanket”.  I suspect “babies” or “baby” in such sentences is used as a placeholder for a name.  And since we don’t know whether this particular baby is called Michael or Michelle they are called “Baby” as name.  I suppose it is meant to sound more personal – to me it sounds weird to this day.

Keep the - aehm - your distance. pic source: http://www.drive-safely.net/safe-following-distance/

Keep the – aehm – your distance. pic source: http://www.drive-safely.net/safe-following-distance/

Something similar happens with legal counsel but probably not for the same reason.  In business you will hear sentences like “let’s run this by Counsel” or “we need to get Counsel’s approval.”  However, you wouldn’t say, “let’s run this by doctor/CEO” it would definitely be “let’s run this by the/your doctor/ the CEO.” Why Counsel here is treated like an general concept as in #1 above rather than an individual is unclear to me.  Maybe people want to give the impression that they have a whole, well-oiled legal machinery supporting them rather than one little lone lawyer – but I am just guessing here. Another confusion is around the use of “you/your” in certain instances where, e.g. in German and also in Spanish nothing would be used.   A recent example is from I trip I took to Austria.  On the freeways they had signs up that encourage people not to drive to closely behind the car in front of them.  And surprisingly, those signs were in English.  Discouragingly, though, they said “keep the distance!” “Wrong”, I screamed, “it has to be ‘keep your distance'”.  My German friends did not understand where the “your” is coming from and I couldn’t explain it.  I just knew that nobody would ever say “keep the distance”.  It just sounds weird.  Driving 90 miles per hour I missed the opportunity to take a picture of this faux pas – darn.

So here we have a few exceptions to mull over.  Like with all languages, the little things like keep your distance and keep the distance can make a the difference.

July 13, 2015

Articles

Those little articles can be tricky beasts and their usage varies between English and German in subtle ways that are sometimes difficult to pinpoint.

Before looking at differences is usage it makes sense to first establish what the correct usage of the English articles – a/an, and the – are and when using an article would be wrong.

The rules are fairly simple.

For countable nouns – that is nouns that one can put a number in front of such as 1 blogger, 40 readers, 9 roses, etc.

  • both a/an and the can be put in front of the noun, depending on the context
  • A countable noun in the singular needs an article “I am talking to the teacher” or “I am eating an apple”
  • If used in the plural without an article one refers to all of that thing, e.g. “Apples are yummy.” Meaning apples in general are yummy, not just the one you are eating right now which would be “the apple is yummy.”
  • The first time you use a countable noun, generally, you would use the indefinite article “I am reading a book.” subsequently the definite article is used as one refers to a specific embodiment of that thing “Is the book interesting?”
  • The is also use when the listener knows which thing one refers to in the following example: “the phone is ringing”. e.g. when it is your one and only phone that is ringing vs. “a phone is ringing” when it could be your landline, your cell phone, your husband’s or even the neighbors’ phone.
  • “an” is used in front of words starting with a vowel sound, e.g. “an apple” or “an herb garden”.  If a word does not start with a vowel sound “a” is used such as “a flower”, a house” and “a user”. These examples make it clear why vowel sound is important, not vowel.  A word can start with a vowel but not a vowel sound such as “user” or it can start with a consonant but a vowel sound, such as “herb” as the h in “herb” isn’t pronounced making the word sound like “erb”. One needs to be careful with the h, though, not all h’s are dropped and hence it is “a history”, not “an history” because the h is not silent. After all it isn’t ‘istory, although the French might pronounce it that way.
IMG_7446

“water is precious” – no article, as this refers to water in general. But: “The water was very cold” – meaning that the specific water I put my hand/foot in was cold, which wouldn’t come as a big surprise in this case as it was winter in Germany. (c) Tina Baumgartner

The other group of nouns are uncountable words, which, obviously, you can’t put a number in front.  A few examples are: water, happiness, luck, money.  Of course in many cases you can put a unit of measure in front that makes them countable, as in 3 bottles of water or 2 suitcases full of money but then it is the bottles or suitcases you are counting, not the water or money.  Obviously that does not generally work with happiness or luck or hope, etc.

So in the case of uncountable words:

  • generally you cannot use a/an in front of them.
  • generally you can’t make an uncountable noun a plural “waters”, “lucks” and “happinesses” are not proper words, though is special circumstances that might work, e.g. “the waters are deep” – a case where “water” doubles for a body of water such as a lake or maybe river not water in general, or “monies” a technical term used in finance.
  • if you use an uncountable noun with no article if it means that thing in general, e.g. “water is precious”, “I am a great believer in luck.” etc.
  • and finally you use an uncountable noun with “the” to talk about a particular example of that thing. “The money I raised will be donated”, “The water in the Sierra Nevada tasted very good.” “you won’t believe the luck I had in the last poker game”.

This sounds like a lot but really isn’t too bad and rather easy to remember.

There are, of course, exceptions which sound weird to the ear of a non-native speaker and even my non-native ears with almost 2 decades of speaking English.  Those will be discussed in a later blog.  Stay tuned.

 

July 7, 2015

New Official English Words

Welcome to the new additions to the Oxford Dictionary.  Pic: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/08/knowles-one-hundred-years-coed/

Welcome to the new additions to the Oxford Dictionary.
Pic: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/08/knowles-one-hundred-years-coed/

The Oxford English Dictionary recently released the latest words that are no officially part of the English languages, as opposed to being used but not being “official”.   Some surprised me because I expected them to be official words for, like, ever, some because I didn’t even know the word or I knew the word but didn’t know it had that additional meaning that now as made official.

Some others are pretty much non-events.

Let’s look at a few.

High on the list of media attention grabbing new words is “twerk”, the dance move, popularized in 2013 or thereabouts is defined as dancing “in a sexually provocative manner, using thrusting movements of the bottom and hips while in a low, squatting stance.” – Now that is a long explanation for something that everybody, who has ever seen Miley Cyrus do anything, grasps intuitively.  Welcome to official existence, twerk, you child of twisting or jerking.

One of those I stare at and wonder is “gimmick”.  It supposedly means “a night out with friends”.  I have never heard it used in that sense and maybe it just isn’t something Californians use.  The good old gimmick I know and like has the following meaning:an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal“.  How the word made it from trick to happy hour I can’t begin to explain.

One I had never heard used is “fo’ shizzle”, slang speak meaning “for sure”.  I seem to not travel in the right circles for that kind of slang.

Then there is guerrilla used in the sense of “describing activities carried out in an irregular and spontaneous way”.  Now, maybe my job has biased me but I have know and used guerrilla in this sense for years.  In fact, I probably have used it more often in this newly approved sense then the original one.  So again, welcome to the world of officially approved terms, guerrilla marketing.

Now one that I like, the somewhat childish but cute sounding look-see, pronounced “looksy”.  It means what you think it does, taking a quick look around, doing a brief inspection.  Here is an example:

“Shall we pitch our tent on this camp ground?”

“Let’s have a quick look-see first.”

What else is new? The universally used “meh” that expresses a profound lack of excitement and enthusiasm which seems to date back to the early 1990 and the Simpsons. Another popular culture addition is “Twitterati”, describing prolific users of the social networking site Twitter, plus many many more, some of which I am very unlikely to ever use. But it is good to know that there are words for things I might want to say, one day.

 

 

July 5, 2015

Stolpersteine

This is the first of a small series of German language blog entries that are designed to address some common mistakes Germans speaking English make.  Some content might be redundant with the content provided in the English language blog.

In dieser kleinen Serie fasse ich einige der haeufigsten Fehler zusammen, die Deutsche im Englischen machen.  Fangen wir mit den an sich einfachen aber doch haeufig verwirrenden Konzept des “besitzanzeigenden s” an, das im Deutschen am ehesten dem Genetiv entspricht.  Im Deutschen wird der Genetiv – der ohnehin fast nie benuetzt wird –  ebenfalls durch ein s signalisiert. “Das Haus des Grossvaters/Grossvaters Haus ist der Stadt” waere ein Beispiel.

Im englischen ist das ganz aehnlich nur ist das s mit einem Apostroph abgetrennt: “Grandfather’s house is in the city.”

So weit so gut. Was aber wenn man zwei Grossvaeter hat, die beide in der Stadt wohnen? In dem Fall wird der normale Plural gebildet und dann das Apostroph angehaengt um den Possessive anzudeuten: “The grandfathers’ houses are in the city.”

Unuebersichtlicher wird es bei Worten, die auf s enden, denn dann gibt es zwei Moeglichkeiten” Grandpa Charles’s house is in the city” oder “Grandpa Charles’ house is in the city.”  Beide sind richtig und haben ihre Grammatik-Gurus, die die eine vs. die andere Schreibweise befuerworten.  Die einfachste Empfehlung ist, dass man sich fuer eine Schreibweise entscheiden soll und diese dann auch durchgehend verwendet.

Natuerlich gibt es jede Menge zusaetzlicher Regeln und Empfehlungen, was man mit Worten, die auf x oder ch enden macht, was wenn es Eigennamen sind oder auf s enden oder Worte, die auf zwei ss enden und vor einem Wort stehen, dass mit s anfaengt?  “the hostess’s sink” – “das Wasch/Spuelbecken der Gastgeberin” waere so ein Beispiel – dass ja recht bescheuert aussieht.   In vielen Faell ist ebenfalles gesunder Menschenverstand und Konsistenz gefragt.  Wenn man schreibt dass man bei den Joneses zum Abendessen war dann sollte man mit den Sanchezes ins Kino gehen.  Wenn man allerdings bei den Jones’s diniert hat, sollte man mit den Sanchez’s ins Kino.

Wichtig ist erstmal, dass man die Grundlagen richtig hinkriegt, um Missverstaendniss zu vermeiden oder nicht wie ein Ignorant darzustehen.

possessive 2

Das ist ein ganz normaler Plural muesste also “Signs” sein, nicht sign’s. Das Schild macht so ueberhaupt keinen Sinn.

possessive

Das gleiche Problem, Hondas ist ein Plural – viele Honda Autos. Wieder ergibt das Schild so keinen Sinn.

Die Grundregeln sind:

  • In einem normalen Plural hat ein ‘s nichts verloren.  Meine zwei Soehne sind “my two sons” nicht “my two son’s” or “my two sons’ ” Das letztere waere richtig wenn es von einem Nomen gefolgt waere. z.B. my two sons’ boat- das Boot meiner zwei Soehne, also ein Boot das beiden gehoert.
  •  Ein Possessiv braucht ein Apostroph, sonst ist es kein Possessiv sondern ein Fehler.

Bevor es ganz bloed und umstaendlich wird kann man sich meistens mit einer Umschreibung behelfen.  Also statt “Illinois’s constitution” also “Illinois Verfassung” kann man ohne weiteres “the constitution of Illinois” sagen, also “die Verfassung von Illinois” oder – vermutlich korrekter im Deutschen “die Verfassung des Staates Illinois”.

Wenn man das gemeistert hat, kann man schon mehr als viele Muttersprachler.

July 2, 2015

Presumed English

A few words recently came to my attention that Germans often get wrong but that are not false friends per se.  It is more that everybody presumes that these are English/American words because they sound English when in fact their are not.  These mistakes are hard to avoid – because they are made in the conviction that the words/terms used are English and as such never questioned.

Here are a few examples.

The most well-known one is “Handy” the term universally used in Germany for a mobile or cell phone.  The “y” at the end and the English pronunciation generally used for the “a” makes people believe that they are using a proper English word.  Most are very surprised, many to the point of thinking it is a joke, when they are told that no such a thing as a “handy” exists in the English language.

Somebody asked me the other day what “handy” actually means in English but I had to pass.  Other than a slang meaning that I wasn’t prepared to discuss while the kids were in the room I couldn’t think of any.

The puzzling term "beamer"

The puzzling term “beamer”

A funny one, and probably an American English rather than British English one is “beamer”.  Germans use “beamer” – an unquestionably English term – for a projector.  One of those handy-dandy things one attaches to the computer that enables one to project the computer screen to a large external screen.  There is a beam of light so, undeniably, this makes a certain amount of sense.  However, in American English a beamer is something quite different, namely a general term of a BMW.  Don’t ask me how this came about, I assume it has something to do with BMW being a mouthful and beamer keeps the B and M sound but does away with the clunky W while making it sound fast and sleek.

After having spent almost a year in Germany I fell for it myself the other day.  In a meeting I said that it would be good to have a  …. what’s that word? …. you know that thingy that projects to the wall …. a beamer.” I caught myself a split second later and corrected myself but not before seeing some blank stares and silly grins.

The list keeps going:

Public viewing

In English, as Wiki states, is the condition of a deceased person, often of high social stature, whose body is available for public viewing.

In German or rather “Denglish”: the live broadcast of a sporting event to a public square on which 100 to many 1000s will rather to watch together.

Body Bag

In English those dreary black plastic bags that are used to remove corpses from a crime scene

In German/Denglish: a messenger bag like accessory that is worn close to the body

There are a bunch more but those are a few of the good ones.  If you have a favorite please let me know!

June 27, 2015

False Friends

I mentioned false friends before, words in the language you study that sound very much like words in your own language and hence one is tempted to assume they mean the same.

Two examples from the German and English languages come to mind: eventually and actually in English and eventuell and aktuell in German.  Let’s talk about and clarify both of them:

Eventually and eventuell – are very close sounding and used in similar contexts.  However, “eventually” indicates that something will happen at some non-specified time in the future.  The point is, the thing will happen, just when isn’t determined yet.  “Eventuell”, on the other hand, means that something may happen in the future, so the basic fact whether the event will happen is uncertain.

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married "eventuell/maybe."  (c) Tina Baumgartner

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married “eventuell/maybe.”
(c) Tina Baumgartner

The difference can be rather disconcerting: “eventually we’ll get married” is quite different from “maybe we’ll get married.” Hearing a college student say: “I will eventually finish my degree” is cause for concern for parents, but hearing them say “Maybe, some day, I’ll finish my degree” is way worse.   From the German’s perspective misusing the word the consequences can be dire as well: saying to your business partner “I will eventually come up with the $2M needed to keep the doors open” is telling him/her that you will get the money when what you meant to say that you “eventuell” will get the money which means potentially/maybe you somehow manage to come up with it.

Actually and aktuell are also similar sounding but have the advantage of being used in different contexts and hence it should be easier to keep them apart.  “Actually” is a frequently used word in English which is mostly used in the same contexts as the German “eigentlich”.  It is a bit of a fudge word that is hard to translate and very context dependent.  A few examples might illustrate the use best:

“Are you going to the grocery store with me?” – “Actually, I had planned on going to the gym now.” – here it is used in the sense of “well” or – since it is often used when saying no to something, it is used in the sense of “uhm, well, no”

“This is actually a good question” – here it is used in the sense of “indeed”

“How did your trip to Italy compare to the last time you were there?” – “Actually, I had never visited Italy before” – here it is used in the sense of “in fact”.

Aktuell, however, means current/up to date:  “aktuelle Nachrichten” are current news, “ist das noch aktuell?” means “is that still up to date?”

So a false friend but not as deviously false as the eventually/eventuell pair.

 

June 24, 2015

Of course

“Of course” in English is used to express that something is well-known and understood and not surprising.
“We loved Norway in winter, but, of course, the days were short.” Now, that doesn’t come as a big surprise to most people.

“Was the food in Thailand spicy?” “Of course it was.”  At least to those of us who have traveled to Thailand this not new either.

“Of course” is one of those little phrases that Germans use a lot when they speak English and that they use slightly differently than native speakers .  And it is another of those phrases that Germans use the way they would use the literal translation “natuerlich” in German as a way to emphasize a fact or statement. They often start a sentence with “of course” to express not that what follows is a well-known fact but that what follows is a somewhat surprising or unusual fact that needs a bit of emphasis.”Of course, all our dishes come with French fries” a waiter might say, before anybody even asked whether French fries are available.

Germans use “of course” often to express that they think something is the case or to proactively confirm a not generally known fact and hence use it more in the sense of “certainly”.

The following is a bit of an overstated example to make the point:

German sales person: “Of course, the computer comes with a free ticket to Disney World and preloaded software.”

While the computer can be reasonably be expected to come with software (and hence an “of course” would be appropriate if the buyer asked “does it come with software?”) it cannot reasonably be expected to come with a free ticket to Disney World, hence the “of course” is misplaced.

Now if the company had put out an advertising campaign saying “Buy a computer get a free ticket to Disney World!” and the buyer had come in, flyer in hand and asked “does this computer come with a free ticket to Disney World?” then “of course, it does” would have been an appropriate answer.

It is a fine difference and probably not particularly relevant in many contexts but I have noticed it a number of times and in some occasions this “proactive of course” comes across as a bit unfriendly or slightly offensive.  As if the other party should have known already.  As if a generally accepted fact somehow had slipped the attention of the other person and one now has to point it out the obvious.

This is definitely American English 201 or even 301, not 101 but its best to not get into the habit of using “of course” to emphasis a fact that isn’t widely known and accepted.

 

 

June 21, 2015

He, She, It

The inappropriate use of  pronouns is one of the most common mistakes native German speakers make when they start speaking English and have progressed to the stage where they attempt conversations, even simple ones.

In German there are three definite articles “der, die, das” associated with gender: der for male, die for female, das for neuter nouns.  The process of assigning a noun and a gender and with that an article strikes many non native speakers as arbitrary and, although there are rules, that is probably at least partially true.

However random this might look to English speakers, gender and articles are deeply engrained in the German language and when Germans start speaking English they carry that notion with them.

That’s why German refer to dogs as “he” and cats as “she” despite the fact that they do not know the actual gender of the animal because in German it is “der Hund” and “die Katze”. What to make of “das Pferd” – the poor neuter horse is a different story.

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles source: www.hundekeks-online.de

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles
source: http://www.hundekeks-online.de

In English if one uses a pronoun to replace a noun it is “it” unless we know, as in the case of animals, for certain what actual gender the animal has.  So if we know that Ginny, our friend’s dog, is a girl we refer to her as “she” and to  Rascal, our other friend’s tomcat as “he”.  The same is true for humans, that goes without saying, Fred is “he” and Sarah is “she” and Baby Caitlyn is “she”, too, not “it” as it would be – correctly stated- in German, as Little Caitlin (das Maedchen, the girl) is technical a neuter.

However, in English one never ever uses “he” or “she” to refer to an inanimate object.  So the infamous sentence “put it into she” I once heard a German visitor use when he meant to say that the other person should pour the water (das Wasser and hence “it” – which happens to be correct) into the bottle (die Flasche and hence, in German, “she”) is not only horribly incorrect but also rather unambiguous verging on the suggestive because if “she” is used the assumption is that one speaks about a woman.

An exception are engines: all sort of moving engines such as trucks and ships are referred to as “she” in casual language. I don’t know why, but my assumption is that the lone trucker out on the highways or the boat captain away from home for months likes to think about his vehicle as a woman.

Another exception is the earth, which is generally referred to as “she”, also countries can take a female pronoun.  However, assigning a female gender to these words sounds rather poetic and should only be done if that connotation is desired.

It is not intuitive to Germans to replace all their pronouns but for a few with “it” but it is also not a hard rule to learn and an easy one to remind oneself of and correct oneself – and will go a long way towards a much better command of the English language.

 

 

June 18, 2015

Literally Pesky Adverbs

Adverbs can be a bother. It starts with them being quite an idiosyncratic bunch with words thrown in that actually seem to somehow not belong anywhere – such as actually.

Let’s not worry for now, about the intricacies of classification of adverbs and similar advanced topics, much has been written about this by experts, let’s just say, they can make life hard, for the native as and especially for the non-native speaker.  Literally.

Native speakers like to misuse “literally” by using it frequently in a context where whatever they suggest should be taken literally isn’t actually true, literally.

“Oh dear, we literally shopped til we dropped when we were in Vegas.”  Unless you really collapsed on the street or in the store you didn’t literally shop til you dropped, you likely just wore yourself out.

“I literally don’t have anything to wear.”  – no comment needed

“I literally haven’t eaten ice cream in a year.” – while that could, literally, be true it most likely isn’t and the person is just trying to make a point.

So, what is a person trying to learn English supposed to do with literally? Ignore, use correctly, use casually but incorrectly just like the native speakers?  That is really a decision everybody has to make for themselves.  I use literally and I use it incorrectly at times but I do so knowingly.  If called on the topic I would concede that point and acknowledge my ungrammatical ways.  However, why be more catholic than the pope, why try and keep the language purer that the native speakers care to?

Part of becoming fluent in both business as well as casual English is to use the language just as the native speakers do (which can be very different in California and Texas, let along England or Australia) and that includes to a certain extent to adopt idiosyncratic (read: wrong) uses of words.  It’s good to know what is wrong and what is correct and it is also very important not to overdo it such as adopting a specific slang of a group one doesn’t belong to.  Ebonics sounds weird on the overwhelming majority of kids from Stuttgart, Sydney or Shanghai (and most other places).