A Little Literal Literacy

I think it’s dangerous to ask writers to stop using certain words. Words are our building blocks. We put them together in distinct ways to create art or to put a reader inside our version of reality or to create a course of action. Each of us has a little basket of words we don’t especially care for, and that’s fine. But my basket of words to avoid isn’t going to be the same as someone else’s. Another writer might be able to use my least favorite words to get a beautiful result.

I say all that to say this: We should stop using the word “literally.” Starting tomorrow, let’s just stop using the word “literally” altogether.

I feel a bit like a parent or a preschool teacher punishing the whole class for one child’s transgressions, but I really think we will all be better off after we stop using the word “literally.” I’m not sure we should have been using it that often in the first place.

First, “literally” is an adverb. I do not belong to the school of thought that encourages us to ban adverbs entirely. We do need the adverb from time to time. “Literally” is an especially weak adverb, though. It means, basically, that you mean what you’re saying. I think you have a better way to drive that point home.

Second, too many people are not using the word “literally” correctly. To illustrate the problem, I’m going to refer to one of my favorite movies, Soapdish. The film follows the writers of a network soap opera as they try to keep up with the show’s often nonsensical plots. At one point, one of their characters is struggling with a disease that will steadily inflate her brain until it “literally explodes.” In this instance, the word “literally” is being used correctly; the doctor who’s explaining this on the soap opera says he has seen such explosions actually taking place. My point here is that if there was no explosion, no “dreadful, dreadful thing,” as the doctor says, then the explosion was not literal, and it should not be described as such.

As much as that annoys me (and it annoys me a great deal), the real reason I think we should stop using the word “literally” is that apparently there was a push to change the word’s meaning. That’s right. At one point, there was a drive to begin using “literally” for emphasis instead of restricting it to its literal meaning, which means it would technically be correct to say that someone’s brain “literally explodes” when it is intact but merely overwhelmed. If this movement gains traction, “literally” would then have two diametrically opposed meanings. It would probably not be the first word in the English language like that, but if I could think of any others, I’d probably discourage folks from using those, too.

Where do we go instead? Well, you know my typical advice is to let your writing do the work. You don’t have to use “literally” for emphasis any more than you have to use “very” or “really” for emphasis, if the rest of the sentence is working as hard as it can. You don’t have to use “literally” to convince a reader that you mean what you say if you’ve built the necessary credibility with your reader.

So why don’t we give “literally” a rest until it figures out what it wants to be? Let’s turn our attention to something else in the meantime. The word “totally” seems poised for a comeback.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

One thought on “A Little Literal Literacy

  • I literally never thought about it, Lexi, but now I’m annoyed, too! 😀 Seriously, writers especially should be wary of falling into those unfortunate speech (and writing) patterns.

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