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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pet Peeve: “Literally”


Okay, class. Who knows what the word literally means? Agnes?

“Really. Truly. Actually.”

Lovely. Well done, Agnes. As for the rest of you, who might blithely write, “Whenever Jeremy talks to me, I literally have butterflies in my stomach,” I’m sorry to hear you’ve ingested insects. But that’s no excuse for misusing this word.

If Candace feels like she has butterflies in her tummy when Jeremy talks to her, then that’s what she should say. To say she literally has them means she “really, truly, actually” does. The opposite of literally is metaphorically—i.e., “what I’m saying is just an expression, a metaphor.”

Here are some other examples:

The thief literally tore the mattress apart looking for the hundred dollars.
(Correct. The thief took a knife and slashed the mattress open.)

The thief literally turned the room upside down looking for the hundred dollars.
(Really? The floor is now the ceiling? Huh.)

When Romeo asked Juliet to the prom, she literally stared speechless at him for two full minutes.
(Lame, but possible. She stood there, agog, until her vocal cords remembered how to work.)

When Romeo asked Juliet to the prom, she was literally struck dumb.
(Ummm ... did he somehow confer laryngitis? Is she permanently mute?)

Get the idea?

One final note: It would be unfair not to mention that Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11/e, revered by writers and editors alike, claims a meaning (2) for literally:

2. in effect : VIRTUALLY

Venerable Webby goes on to quote Norman Cousins: “...will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty ...” and adds this note:

usage Since some people take sense 2 to be the
opposite of sense 1 [“actually”], it has been frequently criticized as a misuse.
Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often
appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
For shame, Webby! Bowing to the masses! Well, grammar hounds, I say stand up to this shameful pandering. The hyperbole is in the metaphor; it never needs the addition of literally, which only confuses the matter. I don’t care who you quote. Cousins should have said, “ ... will turn the world upside down to combat cruelty.” Why stick literally in there and make yourself look like a baboon?

Literally.

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