Saturday, October 29, 2016

When to Use the Word Literally

Literally has become a popular term that many people use without understanding its true meaning. Literal means exact or actual as opposed to exaggerated or fictitious, which is something that is not real.

Writers use literally in two different ways. The first way is for emphasis. "The strangler was literally 5 feet away from me." In this instance, the term is unnecessary. The strangler is either 5 feet away from you or he's not. There is no need to add the word literally; it's redundant. If you want to emphasize how scary it is to have a criminal right next to you, find other ways to show us how frightening that is. Make your heart beat faster, perspire, or gasp for breath due to the proximity of this strangler, but don't use the word literally.

The second instance is always wrong. It's when writers say something like, "My heart stopped—literally." Or "I had butterflies in my stomach—literally." If you have real butterflies in your stomach, you should be on the way to the emergency room. Ditto for no heartbeat. In these examples, the writer is trying to convey how serious an issue is. Better to strengthen your verbs by saying something like, "My heart raced" or "My stomach danced." Or use a metaphor; "I felt like my heart stopped beating." That's accurate. Using literally is not.

So, when is a good time to use the word literally? Almost never.

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