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The Literal Truth

Some people (you know who you are) use the word literally all wrong. They trot it out to add oomph to their pronouncements, not realizing it was born for a completely different role. To say you mean something literally is to swear off metaphors, figures of speech, exaggerations, and other flights of fancy. You’re declaring that you mean exactly what you say—no more, no less.

If you complain that you’re literally starving, then your body has begun to consume its internal organs. If you announce that you’re literally walking on air, expect a visit from the Department of Defence. Literally asks for your words to be taken at face value, as if read by an unimaginative robot. It’s a highly specialized word, and the only time you’re likely to need it is when your reader might think you’re being fanciful and you want to assure them you’re not:

  • At the height of her anorexia disorder, she was literally starving herself to death.
  • Without evildoers to catch, Spiderman found himself literally climbing the walls with boredom.
  • My boss shouted himself into such a rage he was literally foaming at the mouth; some of us were hit by flying spittle.

When you find yourself about to pull out literally, think twice. Maybe you meant to reach for its cousin totally instead. A careful use of literally will save you the embarrassment of describing yourself as literally boiling mad (you’re a lobster?) or literally dead on your feet (you’re a zombie) or literally shit-faced (doesn’t bear thinking about).


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