This article is not literally the most important article you’ll ever read.
Wait, you say. Shouldn’t that be ?quite literally??
No, it shouldn’t?and this week’s Toolbox will show you why.
Literally is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. In fact, misuse is so common?even among highly educated individuals?that a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledged the improper usage (raising a huge outcry from editors and English teachers).
And there is a correct usage. Although It’s often used for general emphasis, literally really means ?actually? or ?physically?; in other words, a phrase used literally means exactly what the words say.
Literally vs. Figuratively
The opposite of speaking literally is speaking figuratively, or speaking in figures of speech or comparisons to create effect. There are many figures of speech, but two of the most common are similes and metaphors. Similes are direct comparisons created using words like as or like:
Example A: After only 15 minutes outdoors, I felt like an icicle. Here, the simile??like an icicle??describes just how cold the speaker was. No reader or listener would think that the speaker had actually turned into an icicle, though. It’s obvious that a figure of speech is being employed.
Metaphors also express comparisons, but indirectly; in some situations this can make the comparison more vivid. The following is a metaphor, and its physical impossibility suggests that the speaker is exaggerating for effect:
Example B: After only 15 minutes outdoors, I had turned into an icicle. That’s pretty expressive, isn’t it? But many speakers want to make it still more expressive, and they do that by adding literally. This is an error.
Exactly the opposite
The problem with adding literally to similes and metaphors is that you are creating the opposite effect of what You’re intending. The thing that similes and metaphors have in common is that they are figurative rather than actual; they paint a picture with comparisons rather than offering an actual, scientific, verifiable?in other words, literal?description. Sticking literally next to figurative speech actually cancels out your figurative language because it alerts the listener or reader that You’re speaking in absolutes.
Example C: After only 15 minutes outdoors, I had literally turned into an icicle. On its face, this means that the speaker had actually, physically turned into an icicle. Is that what s/he meant to say? Well, no?most likely the expression was intended to be figurative.
Remember: when speaking figuratively, don’t use literally.
Example D: After only 15 minutes outside, I literally had trouble breathing. This is saying that the speaker actually, physically had trouble breathing. Proper use of literally? It depends, but if the speaker did have trouble breathing, then literally would be correct.
When in doubt, substitute actually. If actually makes sense, then go ahead and use literally. If not, then leave your figurative language as-is or substitute a different word to create the effect You’re going for.
So is this article literally the most important one you’ll ever read? No. You might read something more important someday, like how to spot the signs of a heart attack?or how to meditate?or how to ace your midterms. Importance is relative, so I can’t use literally unless I’m absolutely sure that this is actually the most important article you’ll ever read. And as much as I love correct usage, I’m unable to make that claim, so literally has no place in my statement.
Misuse of literally is so prevalent that It’s a hard habit to correct; even I have to stop myself sometimes when I’m about to let an improper literally slip out. It’s true that misuse of the word isn’t the end of the world?whether literally or figuratively. But correct use will allow you to speak more precisely and accurately, and in the end That’s what good communication is all about.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.