The word “literally” is literally overused and often inaccurately. However, its use is informally accepted in casual conversation. In informal usage, to say “literally” indicates that the speaker wishes to be taken seriously or to express a perceived parallel idea. Meanwhile, the grammatically correct use of the adverb is used to indicate exactly how something happened.
When we want to be more grammatically correct, a better word would be “figuratively”. For example, if one says, “The sunset literally blew me away!” the statement is a figure of speech. The visual phenomenon did not actually transport the speaker to another physical location. The statement would be better if the word “literally” was omitted. The statement, “The sunset blew me away!” would convey the same meaning, more economically.
The truth of the matter is that the inaccurate use of “literally” is common and does not bother non-grammarians too much. My friends and I use it when we get wrapped up in telling a story. If I state that the home office is literally overflowing with work, I probably don’t mean that work has piled up and is flowing into the hallway. I probably mean that I’m frustrated that my desk is cluttered and chaotic.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to avoid misusing “literally” by being more mindful in speech. Without being too critical of myself, I do not want to overuse “literally”; otherwise the word loses its impact and power. If my statement is figurative or metaphorical, I should say so. Meanwhile, if the statement is intended to be taken literally, I can also use a synonym like precisely, truly, really, or actually. Using a variety of words makes us more effective speakers and writers.
2022 is an election year so we are wise to be skeptical about what we hear and read. Is the propaganda being conveyed by means of emotional and symbolic narrative? Are the statements literal or figurative? The emotionally loaded advertisements and interview appearances will be largely symbolic with the intent to short-circuit our reasoning abilities. It’s best to exercise discernment and be aware of how and when our emotional response influences our choices. This is a useful practice even when the choices are not political.
It behooves us to remember that language operates along a spectrum bordered between literal and metaphorical signification. Our daily communications don’t always conveniently fit either category. If our statements are not legalistic, mathematical, nor scientific data, our communication will likely contain a mixture of literalism and metaphor. When we understand this, we are better able to effectively convey and receive information.
An example of effective reading is when we study classic literature. We read to the point that we seem to occupy the mind of the ancient author. Our mind seems to merge with the mindset of that era and understand the storyteller’s point of view. The metaphorical seems to merge with the literal. We get so wrapped up in the story that we feel like a participant in the action even though the author originally intended for his story to be an allegory. The same effect is true with contemporary writing, but with more sophisticated techniques.
To be a good observer, one must observe to the extent of mentally merging with the event or the storyteller. One must be careful not to merge beyond the point of getting mired in the mental form and subjectivity of the teller’s or our own interpretations. The observer must remember to maintain objectivity and awareness of subtlety in order to reap insight and a modicum of wisdom.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes stand-up comedian–the late, Mitch Hedberg. “I once saw a forklift lift a crate of forks. And it was way too literal for me.”