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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