I am literally overjoyed that you are reading this.

Yes, I know, the above sentence is wrong, right? The word ‘literally’ cannot be used in this way as whilst I am happy you are reading this; I am not physically above the possible amount of joy I can have. There are rules to the English language and these rules are always correct. Right?

Well… not really. For centuries the word ‘literally’ has been used in this way. Literally has been used in different ways over the years including being synonyms for the words precisely, very, and non-figuratively (the one we are familiar with). Commoners were not the only ones who were using it as slang or where they shouldn’t, some of the greatest authors in history have used the word in such manner, including Mark Twain, Richard Dawkins, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The ‘rule’ about only using literally to mean non-figuratively was only documented in 1909 in the book Write it Right. This and other grammar rules have since spread and are now often taught as the laws of English, alongside spelling and proper pronunciation (tomAYto, tomAHto). This wouldn’t be an issue however the implication that these rules are immutable can lead to people being confused or to reject emerging changes in English language usage, such as ‘they’ becoming a singular pronoun. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4988053

The key step in understanding these and other ‘rules’ is context. Am I non-figuratively overjoyed? No. Am I very happy? Maybe. This understanding of not just what is said or written, but the context around it is key to being human. In fact, it is so integral to being human that computer science uses context-based questions as a metric of AI intelligence.

Context in Computer Science

“The bowling ball cannot fit in the bag, because it was too big.” Is a simple example of these AI tests. The question asked to the AI would be “What is too big?”. Is the bag too big? Is the bowling ball too big? Without the context of the first half of the statement even humans cannot figure this out. But because we have the context the question is trivial to us (the ball), whereas most if not all computers struggle with this kind of question. This type of question was first published in 1972 by T. Winograd: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0010028572900023. To see more on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3vIEKWrP9Q

In risk management understanding the context is crucial. An event that is a risk for one party may be an opportunity for another. It is so important that the International Risk Management Standard ISO31000 has a whole section dedicated to it, see standard at: https://www.standards.govt.nz/shop/asnzs-iso-310002009/.

Here at Navigatus Consulting we take care to develop a good understanding of the context from the beginning and then use that context to assess the risks and to literally drive our search for solutions.

For more on risk management at Navigatus: https://www.navigatusconsulting.com/services/risk-governance-management/