NOVEMBER 13 — Kids say the darndest things. But it’s less fun when what they say is incorrect.
One of the common mistakes I’ve heard my own teenager say (repeated about a million times a week around the country I suspect) is the title of this article itself: “It’s literally amazing!”
I recall the first time my daughter uttered that phrase. I was driving. When she said it, I slowed the car down and asked her to repeat it.
After she did, I said, “Do you realise there’s nothing metaphorical about the word ‘amazing’, so you needn’t put ‘literal’ in front of it?”
She didn’t want to speak much to me after that.
Folks her age aren’t the only culprits. I’ve heard some adults use phrases like “It’s literally unbelievable!” and “I literally cannot understand a thing you’re saying” etc which suggest kids may not be the only ones confused.
Literal vs metaphorical (the way words refer to things)
I posted my experience on Facebook and got some enthusiastic replies. Seems I’m not the only parent who’s been getting an earful of these cool-sounding but linguistically less-than-ideal phrases.
Please forgive the English 101 lesson but I hope it helps us all to be reminded of some basic language concepts.
The correct way to use the word “literally” is when it’s stuck to a phrase or word that is normally NON-literal i.e. either symbolic or metaphorical. A metaphorical word is a word which stands in for another word or concept (see note 1).
For example, if you threw a rock from your apartment and it happened to smash into two sparrows, you could say that you literally hit two birds with one stone. Why? Because “hitting two birds with one stone” is a metaphor normally used to describe accomplishing two goals with one task or act; hence observing it happen in a literal way would be worth talking about.
Another example is if your Alsatian chews up your furniture, you could note that your house is literally going to the dogs (where “going to the dogs” means experiencing a severe drop in quality).
Or if a child starts crowing at a party, you could say that he’s literally talking cock (uh, if you know what I mean).
You get the idea. The point is that the literal is contrasted with the metaphorical and both are about the way words refer to things.
Hence — one more time — the problem with saying “I literally cannot understand a thing you’re saying” is that being unable to understand what the speaker is saying is not a symbolic phrase which stands in for something.
It’s like saying “That’s literally a cake!” (which is wrong because a cake doesn’t stand in for anything) compared to “That’s literally mind-blowing!” (which may be right if one is sky-diving since “mind-blowing” is usually code for something hard to believe or very profound).
Okay. With some luck we can all speak (slightly) better English. I certainly hope this article doesn’t make you literally scratch your head.
* Note 1: For example, “break a leg” is usually used to mean “good luck” (on the performance or job interview or whatever), just like how “flog a dead horse” means wasting energy on a situation which isn’t going to change. “Break a leg” and “flog a dead horse” are metaphors.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.