Take It Literally, Literally

Most of us know there are two major approaches we can take to descriptive writing: writing literally and writing figuratively.

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 it’s ‘literal’? 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 why for yourself.

The answer

So why do people do it? The answer, of course, is that so many don’t know the meaning of literally. Instead they use it to emphasise the 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 ‘literally’ is not only unnecessary and annoying, it’s usually ironic, too. Ironic? That’s another problem for another day. 

So, figuratively speaking, don’t use ‘literally’, literally….

Here are more ways to Be Word Wise.