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Category: Slippery Words

I Literally Dislike this Word

Literally, adverb. The primary or intended meaning of a verb.

This word plagues common speech. In part it helps us solve the dilemma of how to describe uncommon events in a public speech overwrought with the embossing and adornment of hyperbole, however it is fraught with risk.

Let us consider the case for usage.

An Uncommon Case for Usage

To use ‘literally’ is to signify an uncommon occurrence. Moreover it is used to imply the honest retelling of events.

So ‘literally’ maybe used to call attention to the verb it adjoins and signal it’s actual meaning, the seriousness in which the author ascribes that meaning, and the lack of exaggeration in the now expected extraordinary claim to follow.

  1. Superman literally lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
  2. I literally wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
  3. She literally sculled two litres of milk, and then, just as swift, threw them back up again in a torrent of white.

We can see that in no way does using ‘literally’ increase the veracity of a claim. The reader is left no better off than had the word not been used at all.

Consider instead:

  1. Superman lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
  2. I wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
  3. She sculled two litres of milk, and then, just as swift, threw them back up again in a torrent of white.

Veracity or otherwise is established in context.

Using ‘literally’ makes the reader ask, why now? Why is it so important that I believe you now? And, in turn, has the unintended consequence of making it more likely that you’re claim will be doubted.

Not recommended for use.

The Non-Existent Case for Emphasis

There is no case for emphasis, however, its usage is on the rise.

In each case below we see an unintended comic effect as ‘literally’ creates a visual image at odds with meaning of the sentence.

  1. I literally caught her eye, and now we’re going out this Friday.
  2. She literally had an alien child that wont do what it’s told.
  3. I literally shot the Prime Minister on my sweet new handy-cam.

In all these examples we note the comic effect sits in contrast to the intended seriousness.

Not recommended for use.

A Comedic Case (with a hidden compartment)

All of the above turns on its head when the intended aim is comedy.

  1. I literally caught her eye, so I gave it back to her.
  2. She literally gave birth to an alien, kill it, no trap it.
  3. I literally shot the Prime Minister, it is a magic trick we’ve been working on.

None of this of course is actually that funny, and so the case literally falls apart – no matter how many times we put it back together again.

Not recommended for use.

An Unreliable Joy

In fiction we might attempt to use ‘literally’ to create a serious/comic incongruity, a metaphorical oxymoron. Such a well constructed sentence, within context, can surprise us, drawing us into the whimsy.

Such writing is joyfully unclear:

  1. And with a simple miss-step Jonathan Safran Foer literally fell from off the Ends of the World, and there he remains – plummeting through space – waiting for us to find him.
  2. Henry did not gather the strings of his mind to a single purpose, he literally laid them bare on the tabletop and counted them up so the sum was no greater than its parts.

Not recommended for the every day user or philologist alike.

Correct Usage

This one is to satisfy the philogists only.

When asking the actual meaning of a word. When asking someone to use the actual meaning of a word

  1. What does abdicate mean literally? Use instead, what is the literal meaning of abdicate? or simply, what does abdicate mean?
  2. Can you translate this literally? Use in this case if you mean a precise word for word translation.

What it tells us

In life it is better to strive for appropriateness, originality and precision least you run the risk of being thought an unreliable narrator to your own existence, which is to say, a fraud or a fool.

Use verbs appropriately because you owe it to yourself and those who are reading: Did you catch the bus or did you ride it? Did you die a little or did you suffer? Did you loose your mind or were you merely furious.

  1. Be original in your use of hyperbole and metaphor so your speech sparkles and the listener is rewarded for their time: I slept as a giant pink marshmallow in a bed of clouds; We went to work as a robot army ready to please our masters.
  2. Be precise with quantities so trust is earned and people listen: There are one thousand million stars in the galaxy and each one will eventually die.
  3. Over and under exaggerate for comic effect to bring joy to a dull moment: I ate an elephant before I got here so I might need a little sit down.

Establishing credibility takes times. It is an investment in accurately describing the world, in appropriate exaggeration, in the aptness of metaphor.

This way when describing uncommon events in a serious way there is no need to literally call attention to the fact. Your credibility is already assured.

References

Merriam-Webster. (2016). literally - definition from Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally
Oxford Dictionary. (2016). literally - definition of literally in English | Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/literally

then, than – explained

THEN

Used for time and space.

  • We had fried chips then went for a jog.
  • There were six red dots then two blue ones.

THAN

Used for comparison.

  • It hurt more than you’d know.
  • The sun is greater than an orange.

EXPLAINED

If you don’t get this through your thick skulls I’ll cry for a hundred years then I’ll need a drink of water, perhaps two, which is hardly more than you’d expect.

Lose or Loose – Don’t be a Loser!

If I want to say, “put that down before I lose/loose my shit!” which should I use (without being a loser)? What does “lose/loose my shit” mean anyway? And, why do people get it wrong so often?

LOSE:

Pronounced “looz”. Despite the single “o” in the spelling the “oo” sound is drawn out as in “Louise”.

  1. (v.) To miss-place something, to forget where something is.
  • Slow down or I’ll lose you; and,
  • Don’t leave it there, you’ll lose it.
  1. (v.) To not have won. Fail to win.
    It is, of course, in this sense of the verb in with we get loser. Being one who loses, or who has no chance of winning.
  • We win, you lose; and,
  • We lose, but only because they cheated.
  1. (v.) To fail to gain or retain. Be deprived off.
  • Put that down or I’ll lose my shit; and,
  • Hold tight, don’t lose it.

You may have tried to grab something, or even tried to hold onto something, and failed.

Of course, and this is where some of the confusion arises, if you deliberately released something, then you would “loose it”.

There is a convergence of meanings.

LOOSE:

Pronounced “loos”, despite the double “o” spelling, the “oo” sound is short as in “Louie”.

  1. (v.) To set free.
  • Let loose the dogs of war!
  • We don’t need that robot army any more, you can turn them loose.

So, it’s (mostly) equally right to say:

  • Hold tight, don’t lose it. (ie. don’t fail to retain it.); or,
  • Hold tight, don’t loose it. (ie. don’t deliberately let it go.) Though perhaps: Hold tight, don’t loose it yet, would be better.
  1. (adj.) Not firmly fixed. Not tight-fitting.
  • the jar lid was loose fitting; and,
  • My loose pants fell down.
  1. (adj.) Not exact.
  • loose talk costs lives;
  • a loose interpretation of the facts; and,
  • that was a loose shot.

The confusion comes in two ways

  • The pronunciation works against the spelling so “Lose” is pronounced like we’d expect to pronounce “Loose” and visa versa; and,
  • All these incessant and sometimes convergent meanings.

So, if you say “loose my shit,” it would mean you literally had a bad case of diarrhoea. Awkward.

And, lose my shit? In this slang phrasing, anger has overwhelmed the speaker. What is being lost is one’s faculties of reason and level headedness. So instead of saying, “put that down before I lose my faculties of reasoning and level headedness,” we say, “put that down before I lose my shit”, to imply (and threaten) that we have already lost them.