Good Words Gone Bad: Literally

Question for you word-conscious writers out there: what do you do with a word that you use in its original/literal sense, that has been co-opted by popular vernacular into a different meaning?

I am thinking here of “literally.” that word has, to my mind, gone rogue and become an unpredictable menace to clear communication.

I do not use it figuratively, in the sarcastic exaggeration sense, and never have. I literally use it literally…so how do I make that clear if I use it thusly in writing, either in my authorial narrative or via a character’s dialogue? Is the context still going to be enough to clarify matters, or has the word been so thoroughly subverted that it must be consigned to the “miscue” bin and abandoned from my lexicon?

I do not think I have yet had occasion for this question, probably because there are few times I would need that word in fiction. I mean, if the author simply states “he jumped five feet up” there is no need to qualify the statement with “literally.” But I dislike the thought of losing a word of my vocabulary because I would use it in a way that might create ambiguity in my writing.



Filed under Rants and Storms, Writing

4 responses to “Good Words Gone Bad: Literally

  1. It’s an interesting dilemma. I think, as a writer, it is good to know that your audience may read a word as its current “slang” use, no matter how much you want to use it yourself. However, I think if it’s clear what way you want to use it, your readers will pick up on that and understand what you mean by context. I hope you can keep using literally the way you want to! 🙂

    • I feel like context would be most important. If there was a chance it could be misconstrued, I would have to change the word, which is a shame – but “instant readability” is the goal for me. Miscues do not further that goal.

  2. ABE

    I go by one rule: my readers are going to be at least as intelligent, well-read, educated… as I am – and they will catch me if I make mistakes. So I should have myself some consistent standards – and try to honor them.

    ‘Literally’ has no better substitute. If that’s what you mean, and the context is appropriate, go ahead and say it. If you have several beta readers disapprove of you choice, then you’ll have to decide what to do.

    Except for using words such as ‘gay,’ which are solidly locked into so many people’s minds (including mine) that saying ‘gay marriage’ would not be interpreted as a carefree union between a young man and a young woman, you’re probably as tuned in to today’s language as most of your readers, and more than many because you are paying attention.

    Trust yourself. Trust your readers. Literally.

    • That is an excellent adage to remember. (you always seem to have one!)

      As I said above, I think context would make the difference. In some cases my meaning would be clear, in others not. And if I think it is clear but all my beta’s don’t, then my clear choice would be to change the word, even if I was disappointed to have to. The goal of giving my readers immediate understanding of what I am saying is more important than my attachment to any particular word. 🙂

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