Thursday, January 21, 2010

The much-abused adverb “literally”

The careless writer habitually abuses the adverb “literally.” In an attempt to intensify a figurative expression, he confusingly adds “literally” – unaware that “literally” in this case means “I don’t mean this figurative expression figuratively.”

Here, from recent news and opinion articles, are a few examples of this abuse of “literally.” (Boldface added.)


Source: JewishIndy (blog)

A December 31 post, “Betrayal by DM Barak Leads to Rabbi’s Murder,” said “Bibi was always an acceptable candidate for higher office by the Washington crowd, especially the ‘Shadow Government’ that really runs America’s foreign policy in the Middle East and is literally joined at the hip with the Saudis and Arab nations.”


Source: Examiner (website)

A December 31 article, “Will Georgia Elect Its First Black Libertarian Governor?”, begins, “With 2010 right around the corner (literally)…”


Source: Examiner (website)

A January 1 article, “Miley Cyrus’ prank backfires,” said “Miley Cyrus ended her concert in Manchester, England smothered in whipped cream after her prank on one of her dancers blew up in her face, literally.”

Reportedly, Ms. Cyrus (“Hannah Montana”) handed one of her dancers a hat full of whipped cream; he put the hat on his head and the cream dripped out messily. But then he retaliated by throwing the hat at Ms. Cyrus, “covering her backside in cream, and then placing the hat on her head.” (Fortunately, the hat contained no explosives, only whipped cream.)

The Takeaway: When we combine the adverb “literally” with a figurative expression, we are stating that we don’t mean the figurative expression figuratively. The usual result is an absurd sentence.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain, not the ideas they express. I promote no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

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