Thursday, May 23, 2013

The much-abused adverb “literally” (3)

Careless writers and speakers habitually abuse the adverb literally.

One form of abuse is to add literally to a figurative expression, thereby saying, “I do not mean this figurative expression figuratively.” The result is usually an absurd sentence. (Examples)

Another form of abuse is to add literally as “pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis [but in a context] where no additional emphasis is necessary.” For example:

Memorial Bridge workers stopped an out-of-state motorist last week, who was directed over the bridge by her vehicle’s GPS.

“She literally drove a fair distance into the construction zone,” said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

The new Memorial Bridge is under construction and is expected to open in July.

Boynton said the incident occurred sometime late last week. The woman drove past barriers and “was literally stopped by construction workers.”

. . .

He said a similar incident closed the Mount Orne covered bridge in Lancaster. In that incident, a truck literally drove into the bridge.
(Boldface added.) (Source)


In all three instances, literally is used hyperbolically in a clause which needs no hyperbole. Look at the three clauses without the adverb literally: (1) the motorist drove a fair distance into the construction zone, (2) she was stopped by construction workers, and (3) a truck drove into the bridge. All three clauses are just fine.*

The Takeaway: Don’t use the adverb literally as hyperbole where it isn’t needed; you may confuse your readers by causing them to wonder why you put that word there.

See disclaimer.

*Notice that in the third instance, the reporter is paraphrasing (as opposed to quoting) the spokesman, so we readers don’t know if the spokesman said “literally” or the reporter used it as part of her paraphrase.

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