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Fighting for Literally
There is no escaping the maddening phrase literally like. An Internet search yields teeth-grinders like these: “Being there was literally like stepping back in time.” “Eating this steak was literally like eating dirt.” “Neymar literally flops like a fish out of water.”
The words in the phrase literally like don’t belong together—literally refers to objective reality, whereas like
introduces an analogy, and all analogies are subjective.
We should limit literally to unadorned descriptions of what exists or happens—and exclude it from our interpretations or opinions. Style
guides are unanimous on the topic of literally: the word should never refer to anything but verifiable facts. The truth of any statement
containing literally must be clear and indisputable to every sane living being, whether it’s a baker in Yakima or a ballerina in Yakutsk.
In 1909, the writer Ambrose Bierce offered this example of literally abuse in his booklet Write It Right: “His eloquence literally
swept the audience from its feet.” Bierce’s comment: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is
Why undermine so powerful a word as literally when alternatives are readily available? Many authorities recommend virtually, and in a
perfect world, virtually would be the ideal substitute. It works fine as a replacement for literally in the first example in the first
paragraph: “Being there was virtually like stepping back in time.” But too often virtually sounds fussy. Note how humbler
words work better with the other two sentences above: “Eating the steak was really like eating dirt.” “Neymar actually flops like a fish
out of water.”
Something else to bear in mind: literally is an adverb. Many writing instructors recommend purging adverbs from your writing wherever possible.
(Mark Twain once said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”) Look again at the three original examples above. The adverb isn’t needed in any
of them. Adding literally appears to be no more than an easy, lazy way to spice up three humdrum, cliché-heavy sentences. Roy H. Copperud
addresses this ploy in his Dictionary of Usage and Style: “The habit of demanding that the reader be thunderstruck by commonplaces, which
the meaningless use of literally exemplifies, is tiresome.”
No other word in English can quite say what literally says. That is why the fight to keep its authority uncorrupted is so important to us
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Is there a better way to say these sentences? Suggested solutions are below.
1. Literally nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word is literally the worst mistake you can make.
3. I literally died laughing and had to run out of the room.
4. These people must literally live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man literally fell to his knees and prayed.
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Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses, and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?
This week, courtesy of language historian Anne Curzan, we continue our run of a small sampling of words that you may not have realized did not always mean what they mean today.
1. Spinster: As it sounds, spinsters used to be women who spun. It referred to a legal occupation before it came to mean “unmarried woman”—and often not in the most positive ways, as opposed to bachelor.
2. Bachelor: A bachelor was a young knight before the word came to refer to someone who had achieved the lowest rank at a university—and it lives on in that meaning in today’s B.A. and B.S. degrees. It’s been used for unmarried men since Chaucer’s day.
3. Flirt: Some 500 years ago, flirting was flicking something away or flicking open a fan or otherwise making a brisk or jerky motion. It came to mean “a pert young hussey” in the mid-1500s. By the late 18th century it meant “play at courtship.”
Pop Quiz Answers
1. Virtually nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word may be among the worst mistakes you can make.
3. I laughed so hard I had to run out of the room.
4. These people must live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man fell to his knees and prayed.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.