Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Essay: Literally Wrong!

People, please remove the word "literally" from your lexicon.

Overheard in a shopping mall yesterday (from a woman in her 30's, no less!), "My mom is literally a bitch!"

A radio program I listened to over the weekend had a caller say, "They literally took my head off!"

From a book: "He literally exploded in fury."

Unfortunately for these users, the word literally isn't what they think it is:


[lit-er-uh-lee] –adverb
1. in the literal or strict sense: What does the word literally mean ?
2. in a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.
3. actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The city was literally destroyed.
4. in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.

In other words, the mall shopper's mother must literally be a female canid still within breeding age, a zombie decontamination team must be sent to the home of the male radio caller, and the next scene in the described book should probably involve a mop and bucket for cleanup.

As authors, it's our responsibility to walk a certain line. On the one side, we have what is called colloquial usage. Twenty years ago "Google" was something babies said. It was not a verb and it was not a noun. Today, Google is the most successful search engine on the web, and we use the term to describe searching for anything from directions to adult movies.

On the other side of that line is traditional English. The language has changed a lot in the last few hundred years, and it further evolves every day. However, when we drive the colloquialism bus too close the guard rail, we risk a drop that will literally turn readers away from our writing.

In my country there is a certain class of people who tend to use incorrect grammar in speech. These people, usually with the best of intentions and not necessarily due to any lack of intelligence or education on their part, can't put a subject and predicate together to save their lives.

"I don't got no money."

"I seen it."

And so forth.

This essay isn't an indictment of those people. In some cases I've read brilliant, brilliant, writing from students who speak as if their mouths are full of sand paper and real English hurts them. They obviously know how the language connects together, but they choose not to use it verbally for some reason.

Actually, the reason is that the people around them speak in that manner, and so do they.

Before you tell me I'm on some kind of moral high horse (or make an asinine indictment of racism against me), I want to point out that very few of us use the third person indefinite pronoun "one" to indicate themselves in normal conversation, as in, "One feels that Mr. Rivan is, perhaps, the finest example of manflesh in North Carolina."

Nor do we refer to ourselves in the third person as used to be required for formal essays way back in the day (1990) when I was taking AP English: "This author agrees that Mr. Rivan is a quite tasty dish."

In other words, the way we speak is not necessarily the way we write.

In the case of non-fiction, this isn't an issue. As you can see from these essays, my non-fiction is written to be a conversation between myself and the individual reader. (Your fly is down, by the way.) I keep a fairly informal tone, and I sometimes step aside for humor or other reasons tangential to the discussion (How many of you realized that I was alluding to To Serve Man rather than commenting on how attractive I am in the above quotations? Guess what? You were wrong! I'm a hot biscuit!)

When we write fiction, however, we're sometimes locked into tighter roles than in non-fiction. In dialogue, I have no problem with poor grammar, or even spelling in most cases. Sometimes this even works for exposition. Much of the charm of Huckleberry Finn came from Huck's mangling of the English language that still painted such a vivid picture of words. (It's a shame that such a wonderful piece of anti-racist writing could be twisted by race baiters with an agenda and used as a propaganda piece for them. Anyone, and I mean anyone, that has read that book and claims it is racist obviously lied when they were asked if they read it. The whole damn book is about how Huck stops seeing "Nigger Jim" as a slave and instead starts to see him as "Person Jim.")

Remember what I said about non-fiction digressing tangentially?

The Sten series by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch has a character who speaks with a Scottish accent. Although this is one of my all-time favorite series of books, Alex Kilgore drives me crazy!

There are at least four points in the eight novels where Alex is talking about something, and punching through his damn accent is so unwieldy that I just turn the page and go on. In this case, the dialectal conventions the author chose to use hinder the story.

You must keep this in mind. The word literally gets on my nipples because it doesn't mean what people think it does. (Sort of like the Facebook dingbat that called me redundant when she meant ironic.) The word they are actually trying to use is figuratively. Unfortunately, they are seeking emphasis, and 'figuratively' seems to de-emphasize their point rather than strengthen it.

I might write such phraseology into dialog, but I would literally never intentionally or willingly write it into prose or exposition.

Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. Nice that I'm a tasty dish? Not really, it's hard to get any work done when the ladies pursue you so.

    I crack me up.

  2. I'm amazed. Literally. No, really. This is a very interesting observation, and one that got me thinking about how lax I am with my speech (compared to my writing). At the end of the day, I tend to use "ain't" and other whatnots to express myself. Am I lazy? No. Am I tired? Yes. The reason I do this is because it feels good to rebel. That's what writerfolk do... we eliminate periods, contract where we should not, and enjoy being bad. Literally!

    - Julie

  3. Damn iPod... Would be nice if there was a manual context menu instead of relying on fingertaps...

    Anyway, before it ate my response I said that how we speak and how we write are vastly different. Even in different circumstances we find our speech patterns altering. For example, as a football coach I know guys with double Phd's who say things like, "Y'all ain't gonna make that play!"

    Dude is from frickin' BROOKLYN! where his southern drawl comes from is beyond my knowledge.

  4. Yo! I develop a New York accent sometimes. Out of nowhere.

  5. This whole post reminded me of that King of Queens episode with Janeane Garofolo where she literally said 'literally' in every sentence.
    ps: I managed to NEVER get a Long Island accent ;)

  6. I don't think I've willingly watched anything with that shrew in it since "Dogma." I can't stand that liberal toilet pump.

  7. Some of my liberal friends get on my about my decision to not watch shows with Garofolo, Richard Gere, and others in them. I merely ask, "Glenn Beck is a professional comedian. Will you go to his show with me and put money in his pocket?"

    The answer, for some reason, is usually no.

  8. You're funny.
    Liberal toilet pump?
    Hot biscuit?
    I agree with you about the grammar, although I find using a character's poor speech makes dialogue, and the character, more realistic. Few people talk in a grammatically correct way.
    Literally can go the way of the Dogma-bird, however.
    And I mean that in a literal sense.