Usage, on the whole, has declined. Earlier this week Michele Bachmann was tossing around rogue "literally"s on the House floor, announcing that Obamacare needs to be stopped before it "literally kills."
Literally is the adverb that cried wolf. Literally has awakened us at 3 a.m. too many times, shouting that the British are coming.
"Literally?" we ask, grabbing our muskets.
"No, figuratively," it says. "But we needed it to sound urgent!" It is Bachmann's kind of careless usage that has diluted literally to its present state, when you almost always assume "figuratively" is meant when you hear "literally" in conversation.
Good grammar is like all those days you wear your underwear on the right side of your pants: It goes sadly unremarked upon.
But slip up one time and that's what everyone mentions. Grammar Nazis never stop you on the street to say, "What a beautiful subjunctive that was. Clear as a bell, and I loved the appositive you were rocking earlier. Fierce!"
They just chase you down, like Javert, shouting, "Whom! Not who! Whom!"
Grammar Nazi is also one of the few Nazi comparisons that we have permitted to stand unchallenged. Few things are so irksome as the person who snaps up at you, shouting, "Don't give it to me and Tanya! Personal pronoun comes last!"
Perhaps it is time we change tactics. The vinegar approach to grammar certainly does not seem to be bearing much fruit. Maybe we should try honey.
After all, grammar is the unseen wire undergirding even the most acrobatic sentence. English is not an inflected language where subject and object are always instantly clear, and it's the hard-working Whoms and Whos of this world that help us skirt that issue.
The more of these invisible wires we cut, the uglier our sentences will get.
Compliment a stranger's grammar today. It may be our only hope.
Remember what John Donne might have said: "Any pronoun's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Language; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Of course, it tolled for "thee" a long, long time ago.
Don't let it toll for whom.
Petri is a columnist for The Washington Post.