03.09.09

The Awkward Adverb: Literally Literal

The common misuse of the word "literally" is a pet peeve of The Awkward Adverb (shared by many other people). The word is a useful tool to clarify that a potentially metaphorical phrase is indeed not metaphorical. Consider for example, "I was riding my bicycle through the park when I was yelled at by some clown, literally." Here,"literally" stresses that the yeller was not some generic loudmouth but a person adorned with white greasepaint, a pink wig, polka dots, and comically oversized shoes. Or if someone announces he is "starving to death, literally," that person should be provided medical attention, not a slice of pizza. 

All too often, however, people use "literally" as an intensifier, which leads to some disarming imagery. During a February stimulus debate, one Republican representative proclaimed, "We're literally flying blind." We assume he then rushed to the Congressional microphone and made an urgent call for a sighted pilot. And Vice President Biden recently announced, "This is a monumental project, but it's doable. It's about getting the money out in 18 months, to literally dropkick us out of this recession." In actuality, a project involving the dropkicking of 300 million Americans would be beyond monumental, not to mention quite painful.

ABOUT HENRY ALPERT
Henry Alpert,the secret identity behind Action Copy, discovered his writing powers when a radioactive bookworm bit him on the hand at a young age. Before going solo many years ago, he reported for an Asian daily newspaper and taught writing at esteemed universities. He's earned a Master of Fine Arts and has worked on staff at a New York financial trade magazine. In Mr. Alpert, the creative and analytical unite to create one powerful writer. Mr. Alpert currently lives a mild-mannered existence in a quiet neighborhood of New Orleans with his wife, infant son, and dog.

ABOUT THE AWKWARD ADVERB
The Awkward Adverb is a monthly e-mail newsletter which highlights English-language flaws that have appeared on a sign, in print, on the Web, or anywhere in the public sphere. If you wish to subscribe to the e-mail newsletter version of The Awkward Adverb, click here. This link also contains archived entries.

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