Literally the Worst Mistake You Could Ever Make
If most people’s employment of the word “literally” doesn’t drive you mad, you’re probably guilty of a few misuses yourself.
It’s one of the most common complaints of the grammar-savvy. Responding to our post on “Blackboard Moments” – those usages of speech that provoke the same response as fingernails on a blackboard – Abbie points out one of her least favorite tropes of modern language:
“Literally” replacing the word “very” in a sentence. I know someone who says “literally” several times in a row, when she wants to emphasize how “very” something is. One day I will have to shoot her.
One hopes that Abbie isn’t being literal here. Along with that other frequent offender, “basically,” the word “literally” is often mistakenly employed to provide emphasis for a word or phrase that might otherwise go overlooked: “literally furious,” “literally champing at the bit,” “literally scared me half to death.”
As anyone reading this no doubt knows, correct use of the word “literally” literally looks almost nothing like this. It’s a value-neutral term absent of any inherent emphasis or largesse. Correctly, “literally” should be used when a turn of phrase usually employed in a metaphorical sense enjoys a rare moment of non-metaphorical applicability: the phrase becomes true in a literal, words-meaning-exactly-what-they-say sense.
If we know that “waiting with bated breath,” for instance, originates in Shakespeare’s allusion to someone whose breathing has stopped (or abated) in their anxiety, we might say we were “literally waiting with bated breath” if we had cause to hold our breath for an extended period of time.
With our communications increasingly conceptual and metaphor-laden, more and more terms enjoy frequent non-literal use. In an online environment filled with abstract concepts and non-corporeal action, metaphorical language is particularly prevalent: “rolling out new features,” “clearing my inbox,” “laughing out loud.”
Add to this the blurred boundary between idiom and cliché and you have a language rife with metaphor. Those of us attuned to the true meaning of “literally” may jump at the chance to say something like “I literally jumped at the chance,” but be wary that you’re not falling into the same trap as the misusers: using “literally” to convey emphasis, instead of simply finding a stronger word to make your point.
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