It would be fair to say that this week’s “Grammar Tip” is really more of a “Grammar Gripe”. I have a copy of Literally, the Best Language Book Ever sitting on my shelf and I must admit that I haven’t opened it yet … I was drawn to the fact that it drew attention to one of the most horrendous abuses of language yet … Literally.
There are already quite a few rants and polite lessons as to the appropriate use of the word “literally”, however I feel there are some corrections that need to be reiterated abundantly, in as many places as possible, so that they are accessible to all … The exciting thing about doing this blog post, however, is that I learnt more about my “pet hate” than I thought I would. YAY! Learning!
The word “literally” exists; I will not deny that it is a real word with a place in the English language. However, it is often misused and abused as a colloquialism. “Literal” and “figurative” language are both terms that should be known to writers, and many may (vaguely) recall the difference between the two from their time in school when they were (figuratively) beaten over the head with great tomes containing Shakespeare and other ‘greats’.
Literal means taking the meaning of words for exactly what they mean, their usual and most basic message.
Figurative means taking the meaning of words for what they might represent on a deeper, metaphorical level; a figure of speech.
If I said I was going insane, you would know that I meant I was figuratively going insane, not actually (literally) going insane*.
If I said that the cat is trying to claw her way into affection, you might have a (literal) image of the cat clawing her way into my lap (which she does do, I have the scratches to prove it) and a (figurative) image of her clawing warrior-like at other cats to stake her claim on my lap (which she doesn’t do, but that would be pretty cool and I just had a vision of Sweet Pea wielding a sword … down, imagination, SIT! Sta-ay … ).
If you say “I literally died when I saw what she was wearing” you actually mean you died. Your resurrection should be commended (was it the shoes that brought you back?) … You may have figuratively died, but not literally.
Colloquial language is comical when you think of the addition of the word “literally” and how it changes the meaning of ‘common’ phrases …
- The sh*t literally hit the fan. (I’m not cleaning that up.)
- I’m literally going to die if I don’t get that handbag. (No, you’ll just have one less bag to add to the pile of crap in your wardrobe.)
- He is literally the ugliest kid ever. ( … OK, he could be, but we just can’t be sure, can we?)
“Literally” has come to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means … there seems to be some kind of conspiracy around the word and it continues to be abused, despite articles on the matter being written many, many years ago (back when I was a wee lass … ). The interesting point to note, however (and this is where my day’s learning comes in), is that the misuse of the word “literally” actually has a long history and is not a sign of a poorly educated youth … Unless you want to include Mark Twain and Lousia May Alcott in that category? Didn’t think so!
The misuse of the word “literally” is not a new phenomenon, but the conspiracy around it is, and this fascinates me. I was tempted to give you a challenge: to replace the word “literally” with “figuratively” (or just don’t use it at all). After researching the use of the word (read this article for an excellent explanation of the history of the word) I’m more inclined to suggest (urge?) a more conservative use of the word so that “literally” isn’t overused as a colloquialism, but is reclaimed as a word that effectively emphasises and exaggerates.
Ah, the things you learn!
* While we can actually debate the level of my (in)sanity, let’s just roll with this example and not question my mental health at this point in time, mmk?