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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Wright

Commonly Misused Words… Literally

Blame it on msn, facebook, or whatever other means of less-than-perfect social networking and online communications, which undoubtedly helps colloquialisms evolve at a rapid rate… even so, the misuse of words, even in hip, contemporary writing is not the “hip” way to go. Even if your writing is meant to be contemporary, it is still best to be grammatically correct.

Misusing words is a common bad grammar symptom, and it doesn’t help that common, contemporary language tends to blur the actual meanings of words.

I’ve been collecting these commonly misused words in a bit of a mental list, and it has gradually struck me just how misused some of these words are. For example, it’s understandable if you confuse words like “effect” and “affect”; “compliment” and “complement”; or “evoke” and “invoke” – here is a difference of a mere letter or two. For words like these, I strongly suggest using a dictionary! Sounds old school maybe, but it’ll tell you what each word means and help you choose the right one for what you want to say.

But other words are misused to an awful grammatical fault, like the word “literally.”


It may shock some of you as to how simple this sounds, but the word “literally” actually means “literally.” I’m pointing this out because I’ve read “literally” many times in both published and unpublished fiction used with a figurative meaning, as though “literally” means “figuratively.” I’ve also noticed that people use this word in common speech to mean “figuratively.”

Consider, “I literally died laughing.” Clearly, the person making this statement did not actually die. If this person said, “I died laughing,” the listener would know that the statement is figurative. Adding the word “literally” doesn’t make it figurative as it should be meant, but actually confuses the meaning. In fact, a figurative statement doesn’t need the word “figuratively” and definitely doesn’t need the word “literally” to let people know it is figurative. This is something we should be able to tell by the nature of the statement. Even literal statements don’t need the word “literally,” as in, “I literally went to the store.” I doubt this sentence would be confused as figurative if the word “literally” weren’t in it. Words like “literally” and “figuratively” are best used to clarify a statement, in case someone does not understand whether you’re serious or not.

While it’s one thing to allow “literally” to be used in every day speech to exaggerate a figurative point, as is often the case, it is entirely grammatically wrong to use it this way in writing. The only exception I can think of is in dialogue, when a character is using “literally” the way so many people do in speaking. But even then, do you want your character to be one of those people who don’t seem to know that “literally” actually means “literally”?

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