Candlepower

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Red-Pen Pointer: She Literally Misused the Word

A Jewish friend wrote recently to tell me that her son had been invited to join a fraternity. "It's not a Jewish fraternity," she noted, "although they have a handful, literally, of Jewish members." Now, I've known some tiny Jews in my day (some of my best friends and family are tiny Jews), but I can't imagine even one fitting in someone's hand.

I think when people say literally, they're just trying to underline their point, amp up the drama or add a bit of gravitas. Reasonable enough. But when you say literally, you're essentially saying actually. And when you say actually about some Jews — or people of any faith — fitting into someone's hand, frankly, you sound like a putz.

In the past we've praised the writer of the Colorado Wine Company's e-newsletter, and we return to him for his appropriate use of literally, in CoWineCo's Valentine's Day greeting, which marked the shop's third anniversary:

"Well, when we missed a Christmas opening, missed a Valentine's Day opening, and then had water dripping through our light fixtures literally as the electrical inspector was pulling his car up in front of the store, we thought, hey, maybe [the naysaying competition is] right. But no! No I tell you!"

When he says literally, he does indeed mean actually — the inspector really was driving up as the water was coming down. Now, it's true that he didn't have to use literally there; even if he'd written, "... had water dripping through our light fixtures as the electrical inspector was pulling his car up ...," you'd make the leap that the water dripping coincided more or less exactly with the inspector arriving. But the literally provides some oomph. The problem is when you deploy the oomph at the expense of credulity.

So next time you think of saying, "I literally jumped out of my skin," think again. Or seek medical attention.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 18th 2008, 7:29 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
Fun article on usage of word "literal."

The last paragraph was my chuckle for the day!
Monday August 18th 2008, 11:39 AM
Comment by: chas M.
I guess the literal interpretation of handful assumes that a human hand is the reference, which is, of course, to contain several Jews. Therefore, they must be really small. It IS a tricky word, and I see your point. It can actually be misused too easily. Enjoyed the post.
Monday August 18th 2008, 2:01 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
I have found it helpful to lock literally and figuratively in my brain together. This helps me remember that literally means one thing and figuratively means something else. Get those two meanings clear once and for all, and you won't go wrong again. Literally = "in a manner that accords precisely with the words." Figuratively = "relating to representation by symbols, animal or human figures."
Tuesday August 19th 2008, 3:36 PM
Comment by: Taganana
My own language is Spanish so I don't feel qualified to express an opinion.Anyway, in this particular case, we have the very same word in Spanish. It comes from the latin "literalis" which means, as far as I know, taking words in their primary sense, without allegory or metaphor.

I´m very picky about the way some people use words without knowing their real meaning. Sometimes it makes me sick to read Spanish newspapers or listening to the Spanish radio or TV. I know. I´m getting old.
Friday September 19th 2008, 12:00 AM
Comment by: Pamela W. (spanaway, WA)
I wanted to thank Taganana for her opinion; simply because I feel the same way. I feel like I don't know enough(English in-my-case)to express my opinion. But obviously we don't have to be perfect in our usage of our
language to have an opinion. That is why I love this web site. It's a step in the right direction. Who knows one day we all may be better qualified because we seek knowledge. I admire anyone who knows more than one language, the art of communication.
Monday September 29th 2008, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Dale P. (Portland, OR)
It's a peeve of mine too, and it always amuses me to picture in my mind the literal image. But there is something more invasive at work here. Some writers assume that they're doing their readers a favor by using "literally" to call out the fact that the idiom they've chosen was carefully selected and is a very accurate metaphor for the situation. It wasn't plucked out of the air willy-nilly. This time, they mean it.
Thursday January 29th 2009, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Brad Heden (Ellicott City, MD)
In the example provided "although they have a handful, literally, of Jewish members" would the use of the word literal have been appropriate if "handful" were considered to denote "five or less" such as the number of fingers on a typical hand? Then the meaning of literal can remain "actually" and the sentence would still make semantic sense. I always thought "a handful" meant five or less and did not necessarily refer to something that could actually be held in the palm of a hand.
Sunday September 27th 2009, 8:25 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
I use 'literally' when the phrase I have used is one that is a commonly used exaggeration, so that the reader knows that I am, in fact, not exaggerating. For example: In that race he was literally on fire. Without the literally you would think that the racer was performing really well, with it you understand that there were flames involved. When people misuse literally to exaggerate too often, we lose the ability to be able to differentiate between two, sometimes quite different, things.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:55 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Thanks for pointing out this common misuse of the word "literally"!! That has always been a pet peeve of mine...

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