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Quite Contrary: Why you’re wrong about figurative language

When people misuse popular expressions, I’m never sure whether to toe the line and correct them, or just toe the line and go along with it.

Of course, by “toe the line,” I mean “conform to the expectations and principles of others.” That’s what that expression means. But a lot of people have started to use it to mean “get really close to crossing the line.” Those people are wrong. So this week, I’ve taken it upon myself to correct them. Stop misusing “toe the line.”

Also, for those of you who thought it was “tow the line,” I hate to say it, but you’re wrong as well. The phrase derives from track and field events, when runners would have to start out with their toe on the line to insure no one had an unfair advantage. During election years, you’ll probably hear a lot of people saying certain candidates should “toe the party line.”

I get the fact that language evolves over time. That’s one of my favorite things about language — it’s alive and changeable. After all, the only reason words mean anything is because we have all collectively agreed they mean something. Language helps us understand each other, and we’re allowed to change it as much as we want to make it easier to accomplish that goal.

There’s no need to say “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” when we can just as easily say “Why are you Romeo?” (No, it doesn’t mean “Where are you, Romeo?”)

For some reason, though, “toe the line” really gets my goat. If I say “I’ve decided to toe the line on your idea for the group project,” I don’t want people to think I’m challenging them. I’m on your side.

People do this with a lot of expressions, and normally context is enough to clear things up.

Last week I was talking to one of my friends who said “There’s a lot of water under that bridge,” to describe a tense relationship. Of course, “water under the bridge” means there used to be an issue, but it’s no big deal anymore.

It didn’t bother me too much that he misused the expression. I mean, I could’ve cared less, but I also could’ve cared more. So I let it slide.

To be clear, that’s “I could’ve cared less,” which means I cared a little. If I’d said “I couldn’t have cared less,” that’d be a horse of a different color.

Now I’m going to say something that might surprise you: I don’t mind if people misuse “literally,” and it bothers me when people act like it bothers them. It literally makes me want to blow a fuse.

“You mean ‘figuratively.’ ”

No, I don’t because no one talks like that. I can understand “practically” or “virtually” in place of “literally,” but if you feel like you have to use the word “figuratively” to make it clear that you’re using figurative language, you just might be a robot.

For some reason, I really like the idea that people have started to use the word “literally” figuratively. It’s ironic — literally.

At least, I think it is. Does anyone know what “ironic” means anymore?

William T. Perkins is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. How have you been using figurative speech incorrectly? Let William know by emailing him at

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