Literally

Posted by on December 17, 2009

© PHOTOALTOTim Bowen, teacher trainer and Onestopenglish author of the OSE-BuzzWord Lesson Plans, ponders the use & abuse of the word literally

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On a recent train journey, I heard a fellow passenger say to her companion:

“It was a nightmare. We were stuck in traffic for four hours. I was literally dead when I got home”.

My first reaction was to look across the train carriage to see if, by some remote chance, these words were being uttered by a ghost but, of course, the speaker was sitting there, larger than life and clearly not dead. Her use of the word literally to qualify the metaphorical use of dead in her statement, removed any metaphorical element from her utterance and rendered it literal and, therefore, in this particular case, utter nonsense.

Unfortunately, she is not alone. Arguably, the word literally is one of the most frequently misused and abused words in English. Often these abuses pass by without notice but, from time to time, examples can be heard that simply have to be confronted and brought into the public domain. Sport, and football in particular, is a field where commentators and participants are highly likely to sprinkle their speech with a liberal dose of literal references. One English football manager, when commenting on an unlucky defeat for his team, complained that “we were literally camped in their half”, conjuring up images of tents being erected mid-match in the stadium. A radio commentator opined that “As the clock ticks down, Belgium are literally playing in time that doesn’t exist”, introducing an interesting new direction in philosophical thought. A fellow commentator summing up a particularly one-sided game compounded the literal nature of his utterance by qualifying literally with quite when he said “The Bulgarians were quite literally not at the match”. Such nonsense is not confined to the world of sport, however. A BBC reporter came up with a wonderful image when he solemnly announced that “The police were literally swimming in a sea of red herrings”.

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