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.
- Superman literally lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
- I literally wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
- 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.
- Superman lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
- I wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
- 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.
- I literally caught her eye, and now we’re going out this Friday.
- She literally had an alien child that wont do what it’s told.
- 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.
- I literally caught her eye, so I gave it back to her.
- She literally gave birth to an alien, kill it, no trap it.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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
- What does abdicate mean literally? Use instead, what is the literal meaning of abdicate? or simply, what does abdicate mean?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.