Literally Speaking….

“Literally” and “figuratively” are two words that always stop me short, whether the words are spoken or written. It takes a few seconds for my mind to sort them out, to remember what each word means.

An article I clipped out of Writer’s Digest in March 2000 has been a big help in that effort. In a Tip Sheet column, Mark Rowh wrote this about “literally”:

Too often, writers use this term when it isn’t justified, as in ‘Paula literally laughed her head off.’ Literally doesn’t mean figuratively, but that something is actually true as stated. For the example to be true, Paula’s head would actually have to separate from her shoulders! An easy way to avoid this miscue is to substitute a word like nearly. A sentence such as ‘Paula nearly laughed her head off’ would convey the intended meaning.”

Of course, one can’t substitute “nearly” in every situation. If someone says to me, “Literally speaking, I don’t have a clue,” substituting the word “nearly” would make no sense. In those cases, I usually substitute the word “truly” (since literally means actually true) and that helps me understand what is being said.

I think I’ve been confused so often because the word “literally” reminds me of the word “literature,” and much of the literature I’ve read has been fiction.

“Figuratively,” on the other hand, means comparing different or dissimilar ideas or objects, as in this example from The Little Brown Handbook: “As I try to write, my mind is a blank slab of black asphalt.”

My mind does feel like a blank slab of black asphalt sometimes when I’m trying to get started on a writing project, but “literally” and “figuratively” usually are not responsible for that condition.

© 2008 by Laverne Daley

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2 Comments on “Literally Speaking….”

  1. Ike Martin says:

    I read your blog concerning the use of “literally and figuratively. Fortunately for my simple-mind I have always had an easy time with these two terms. For me a quick assessment of reality gives me direction. “Is it possible?” I may be over-simplifying the issue, but does a headline have the ability to scream? Does your mind have the ability to sometimes morph into having the feel of a “blank slab of black asphalt”? Although sometimes a phrase could be either, “She literally ate her self to death”. It’s possible. Of course, “I literally ate my self to death” isn’t, unless you are communicating through a medium.

    I always enjoy your blog so much. It is educational and thought-provoking.

    Ike Martin

  2. Thank you, Ike. It’s always good to hear from you.


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