I spent a fair amount of Sunday afternoon watching Parks and Recreation on Netflix. If you’re not a fan of Parks and Rec, you should be, because it’s one of the greatest shows on the air.

At any rate, Rob Lowe plays a character whose favorite word is “literally,” and he wildly misuses it on a regular basis. This is not too far from what real life conversations are like, however. Literally is sprinkled all too liberally in modern conversations, and for some of us grammar purists, it drives us nuts.

Literal vs. Figurative Language

No, you are not literally going to explode from excitement at finally seeing U2 live. You also are not literally dying of laughter while watching Dude, Where’s My Car, in all likelihood. You are figuratively exploding and dying.

Unless you spontaneously combust when Bono takes the stage, literally is not the word you are looking for.

Definition of Literally

When something is literally occurring, that means that it happening exactly as described. Someone who is literally passing out from excitement has their eyes rolling back in their head, and is collapsing to the ground as we speak.

Usually, the intended word is figuratively, which means that whatever is happening is being described metaphorically. Someone who is figuratively on pins and needles with anticipation is really looking forward to something. Someone who is literally on pins and needles is currently experiencing small puncture wounds on their body.

Have you heard people misuse the word “literally”?

PRACTICE

Take ten minutes and write a holiday scene using as much figurative language as possible. Then take five minutes and rewrite the scene taking the figurative language to its literal extremes. Post your practice in the comments, and take some time to read the work of other writers.

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she’s not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.