Personal and Personally

By Maeve Maddox

Among the most popular words in common discourse these days are personal and personally. A web search for personal brings up more than 900 million hits. Overused crazy, with 274 million, doesn’t come close.

Bloggers and commenters use personal and personally with abandon:

In my personal opinion, the reading comprehension section is the most difficult to study for and to succeed in.

I personally don’t know why she went out with him in the first place.

I personally find myself to be quite hilarious.

This is just my own personal opinion so I am sorry if I offended you.

Various businesses offer customers “personal diets,” “personal checks,” and “personal financial plans.”

Experts of this and that encourage people to develop “personal strengths” and “personal styles.”

So, when are the words personal and personally called for, and when are they redundant or incorrect?

1. Personally is used correctly when a person does something that ordinarily would be done by a minion:

Eric Holder Personally Signed warrant to search James Rosen’s emails.
Danny Zarka is first in line to collect his PS3 in Sydney, which was handed to him personally by Sony’s local managing director.

2. Personally is redundant when used to modify an action that requires the presence of the person doing it:

My son shook hands personally with Tony Danza. (The speaker’s son had to be present to shake hands.)

3. The expressions “my personal opinion” and “I personally think” are not only redundant, they weaken whatever statement they relate to and do nothing to mitigate the person’s responsibility for the opinion.

Note: The only time “I personally” makes sense is when the speaker has acted in contradiction of his own views. For example, “I voted to permit drilling, but I personally believe that fracking causes dangerous earth disturbances.”

4. The phrase “my own personal opinion” piles redundancy upon redundancy. The adjective personal means “individual, private, one’s own.” The adjective own means “possessed or owned by the person or thing indicated by the preceding noun, pronoun, or possessive adjective.” It is sufficient to say “in my opinion.”

5. Personal is sometimes used where the word personalized would be more appropriate. A “personal trainer” makes sense. In the context of “personal trainer,” “personal assistant,” or “personal maid,” the personal designates an employee attached to someone in a close or exclusive subordinate capacity.

In the case of “personal diets,” “personal checks,” and “personal financial plans,” however, the sense is that the diets, checks, and financial plans will be designed to meet individual requirements, hence personalized: “Identifiable as belonging to a particular person or organization, especially by being marked with a name or set of initials. Also: designed or produced to meet individual requirements; customized.

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3 Responses to “Personal and Personally”

  • Dale A. Wood

    The phrase “personal check” is used to contrast with a business check or government check that is written and cashed in the course of business. In other words, a personal check is written on the bank account of Mr. John Smith or Ms. Mary Johnson, but a business check is written on the bank account of the Acme Corporation, General Electric, the Department of the Treasury, or so forth.

    We also have to allow for the British spellings of “cheque” or “checque”, which have extra letters in them for no particular reason.

  • Jeanne Neff

    I’m part of the neither/nor faction. Thanks for the discussion.

    How pleased I am today for your push to get rid of “feeling bad.”
    But it’s a lost cause, I fear.

    I’ve been your reader for many years. Thank you for your thorough
    backup research.

  • venqax

    True, I would say that “personal check” rests as opposed to a business or commercial check and so does pass muster. A personal check could then be personalized by having a name, address, chosen picture background, etc., as the post indicates. Personally, my personal checks are pretty generic.

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