Literally

It’d be easy to take the moral high ground and snicker at those who misuse the word ‘literally’, but I have to admit I’m occasionally guilty of this myself. Worse, I actually misused it in a text message to an editor the other day. That is, sent it to precisely the person who would notice my furphy.

In my defence, it was a message typed in haste. She texted me about an important email to which she was awaiting my response; I was, quite literally, in the queue and just a few steps away from boarding a plane. My message read: Sorry, yes to all. Just haven’t had a chance to reply. Am literally hopping on a plane.

Uhoh.

I knew I’d mangled the word use the moment I’d pressed ‘send’ and my iPhone taunted me with that paralysing point-of-no-return pause. You know, the one where it’s sending but hasn’t quite sent and won’t provide you with an emergency option entitled: ‘Abort! Abort!’

Instead I shuffled forward in the queue, had my boarding pass scanned, turned my phone off, boarded the plane, and stewed. Arggghhhhh. I should know and do better than to commit the cardinal ‘literally’ sin.

There’s something about the word ‘literally’ that sees it roll off the tongue/typed by the fingertips at inappropriate occasions, and I’d at least like it to take part of the blame. ‘Figuratively’, while being a fabulous word, doesn’t throw itself forward in quite the same amenable way.

‘Literally’ is so regularly incorrectly employed, it’s almost morphed meaning. Even if it hasn’t, its mangling lends itself to some amusing moments. For example, ‘literally hopping on a plane’ is quite the visual.

So, in the spirit of not being an editing pedant and of mocking my own furphy, I took a bemused look at this recent Guardian article, which includes the misuse crimes of:

  • I’m literally gutted that I failed my English mock
  • that pass to Rooney was literally on a plate
  • he had to cut back inside on to his left, because he literally hasn’t got a right foot.

Teehee.

I’m a sucker for football-related mangling. I’m an even bigger sucker for Twilight actors misusing the word. As this blog, which is dedicated to pointing out the misuse of ‘literally’, notes: Kristen Stewart, who peppers her statements liberally and incorrectly with it, practically deserves an award.

Part of me wishes the Oxford English Dictionary (AKA the authority on all things words and meanings) would change literally’s meaning to that of figuratively’s. Part of me wants to continue to chuckle as its mangling. Either way, all of me wants to ensure I’m not the one doing the mangling.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.