Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Figure of Speech

Galley Friend M.G. takes a swipe at TNR's Chris Orr for this paragraph:

I am no military historian, but it's my understanding that many armed conflicts that we might consider pre-civilized concluded with just this kind of slaughter (and pillage, enslavement, etc.), and that the widespread recognition of civilized rules of war has saved literally countless lives. As bad as the Nazis were, I think it's unequivocally a good thing that we were not forced to depopulate Germany. The reason we weren't was that Germany surrendered, and the reason Germany surrendered was its well-placed faith that we wouldn't depopulate (or torture, enslave, etc.) the nation anyway.

Leave aside everything else: How do you use the phrase "literally countless" without giving yourself whiplash.


Editorialissimo said...

It's ghastly prose, no doubt. Lazy, too.

I take it Orr intends "literally countless" to mean "a very large number." I assume he would just as easily say "almost infinite" or something equally silly.

But here's my question for you, JVL.

Did Orr inadvertently stumble into a correct usage? For the numbers of lives saved by civilized rules of war are probably a good example of a known, but impossible to quantify, set. That makes it rather like counting stars, right? Known, but uncountable.

"Literally" is bad form, but--if I'm right that this is in fact a countless number--then it might not be inappropriate in this instance.

Anonymous said...

Yes, bad prose.

A quick point on the context. The problem w/ the arguments being forwarded about basically expanding the rules of war (i.e. the geneva convention), is that when you expand it to such a point that everyone is included, even those who do not abide by it, you make it meaningless.

If you don't have to abide by the rules to obtain their protection, why abide by the rules?

Also, when you expand the meaning of such things as "torture" to include almost any inconvenience, then everyone is going to end up violating the rules. Once the rules are routinely violated in one way, people will feel free to routinely violate the rules in another way.

There is a reason that people who do not abide by the geneva conventions were left out of the protections of those conventions.

Going down the path we are going, in a very short time we are going to find that the rules of war no longer exist.

PG said...

Each live saved becomes "literally countless" when you consider that you not only saved 1 life, you saved the life that individual's offspring, and their offspring, in perpetuity. It is impossible to count how many lives you potentially save, even by saving a single life (unless the life you save is that of someone unable to procreate).
Likewise, each life taken become "literally countless" when you make the same considerations. That is why these statements are so pointless.
In unrelated news, I stepped on a butterfly in Bethesda, MD, which "literally" set in motion a series of events that led to the end of the universe. True story.