Friday, March 25, 2011


Let's just get this straight once and for all.

Literally means literally.

It doesn't mean figuratively.

So when you say you did something embarrassing and that you were "literally dying inside", unless you actually have a fatal disease or a knife plunged into your gut, no, you aren't literally dying. You felt like you were dying. You were figuratively dying inside.

Here's the thing. "Literally" is used correctly when you are demonstrating that the usual metaphor used to describe the situation is not a metaphor at all, but real. So, let's say your friend had a heart transplant and they put in a heart made of marble for some reason. THEN you could say, "He literally has a heart of stone." Otherwise you are using the metaphor as a means of demonstrating a truth about someone, so if you met a guy who was super mean and cold and didn't care about anyone or anything, that's when you'd say "He has a heart of stone." Because it isn't literal. He doesn't actually have a heart made of stone. He's just a jerk.

If you feel a need to put extra emphasis on how stone like that heart is, don't add "literally". You could add "figuratively" but that's a bit obvious, I mean, we tend to know that it's a figurative description.

Basically it's like this. If you want to emphasize your metaphor, chances are . . . you don't mean "literally". You just don't.


I'm done now.


Doug A Scott said...

At the risk of getting told off...

What if I'm not using "literally"... well, literally?

Adrienne said...

If you are capable of making us understand that that's what you're doing, then there's nothing wrong with that.

Basically what I think most people are doing when they use "literally" incorrectly is they are actually trying to emulate the phase "almost literally". So what makes their metaphor so crazy is that it is almost accurate. But taking out the "almost" changes the entire meaning of the sentence.

"I was almost literally dying inside" is what they mean, but what they say instead is "I was literally dying inside".

drelkins said...

I give you full permission to mete out righteous justice upon me if ever you catch me using "literally" incorrectly whilst making finger quotes.

Joey Thomas said...

What a lovely, insightful rant. :)

It seems to me that people misuse "literally" because of a lack of any other verbal tools to express emphasis about strong visceral ideas and sensations. "Literal", in most cases, should mean "tangible", something in the physical world that can be quantified.

I think the difficulty lies in the fact that there are no equivalent words for things in the inner world. Can one "literally" be in love, for example? When words like "metaphorically" or "figuratively" come into play, they seem to dilute the experience to the point where it becomes dangerously gossamer.

English seems to have few verbal handles for quantifying or emphasizing the realities of the heart.

Anyhoo… :)

I liked your blog because it made me think.

Thank you. :)