Literally vs. Figuratively

The proper use of “literally” is a very popular subject in usage guides. Most will tell you that “literally” means “exactly as stated,” so that “the cow was literally flying down the street” means that it was airborne and supporting its weight on a cushion of air created by its forward momentum. Such sentences, the usage mavens will tell you, are erroneous: “figuratively” should be used instead of “literally.”

That isn’t exactly true. “Literally” has a long history of usage in a hyperbolic sense. And everyone understands that. If someone says to you “The cow was literally flying down the street,” you might raise your eyebrows at the word choice, but you will understand what they mean. The cow was running really fast. And it isn’t just [insert your favorite ignorant and uneducated group] who uses “literally” this way: so do many master users of the English language like Charles Dickens (and not just in dialogue).

But this isn’t a blog about novel-writing, it’s a blog about how to write winning legal briefs. Many judges—probably most—believe that the hyperbolic sense of “literally” is an error. So it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong about that. If you use “literally” to mean “really,” they will rend their garments, tear your head off, and lay waste all of your dreams. Figuratively speaking.

« »

To stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Some HTML is OK