Take It Literally

take it literally

Take it literally? Sometimes, no. There are two major approaches we can take to describing something: literal writing or figurative writing.

When using expressions, especially in spoken language, we use a mixture of literal and figurative language all the time – usually without even thinking about it.

For example:

‘Run the vacuum over the carpet’ is literal.

‘Run over the carpet with the vacuum’ is figurative (think about it).

Figurative language

Figurative language is brilliant; it adds colour and interest to our speech and writing. Poetry wouldn’t exist without it. We all learned the basics at school.

Remember these?

  • Simile: when you compare two things, using ‘like’ or ‘as’ – for example, ‘He ran like the wind’ or ‘She was as light as a feather’
  • Metaphor: when you describe something in terms of something else – for example, ‘She was a pig at mealtimes’ or ‘He is my rock’
  • Hyperbole: when you use exaggeration for colour and emphasis – for example, ‘He laughed his head off’ or ‘She died of embarrassment’.

The big question is this: Why would you take a colourful figurative expression and ruin it completely by suggesting someone should take it literally? It rather defeats the purpose.

For example:

  • ‘He literally ran like the wind’ or ‘She was literally as light as a feather’
  • ‘She was literally a pig at mealtimes’ or ‘He was her rock, literally
  • ‘He literally laughed his head off’ or ‘She literally died of embarrassment’.

No, no and no!

You can work out in each case, why the sentence is ludicrous.

The answer

So why do people do it? The answer, of course, is that many people don’t know what ‘literal’ really means. They use it to emphasise a point or strengthen the feeling behind a colourful description.

But hang on… that’s what figurative language is for.

As a result, the misuse of the word ‘literally’ is not only unnecessary and annoying, it’s usually ironic, too. Ironic? That’s another problem for another day. 

Here are more ways to Be Word Wise.