How to Literally Improve Our Writing

The word literally means that something actually happened. However, too often, people use literally as an intensifier, effectively meaning figuratively – quite opposite of the original meaning.

Consider, “He literally turned blue.”

We don’t interpret this as a man becoming Smurf-like or joining The Blue Man Group, but more likely that he was having great difficulty breathing or was quite envious (blue with envy, to be cliché).

In a strict sense, this is a misuse of the word. Unfortunately, so many people have misused literally for so long that dictionaries are beginning to reflect this misuse as now being acceptable.

This can result in confusion. For example, “He literally fell on the floor laughing.” Did this actually happen? I suppose it’s possible. More likely, he merely laughed really hard. But we can’t be sure.

As writers, we need to ensure our words are clear. So how should we use literally? Do we cling to tradition or follow the trend? I suggest we do neither, that the best response is to stop using literally. (Which is unfortunate, since I use it often – and always “correctly.”)

If we use it only in the traditional sense, some people will be unsure if our words are actual or hyperbole. Yet, if we embrace the new meaning, purists will decry our work as sloppy.

The best solution is to avoid it, literally.

6 thoughts on “How to Literally Improve Our Writing

  1. I like this post. I use literally once in a while, in its true meaning. I never thought about the figurative(?) way. Following your advice, I am scanning my manuscript to make sure I delete this word anyway.
    I hear that adverbs add nothing and should be eliminated, but I like words and adverbs as intensifiers, and so they keep showing up.

    Thank you, Peter.

  2. I always thought the cliche was “green with envy” literally, which proves another piece of your advice…avoid cliches. (I need a tip for how to get that accent over my “e” in the word “cliche”)! (Also a trick for remembering if I’m supposed to put punctuation marks inside or outside of the parenthesis!)

What do you think? Please leave a comment!