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  1. #1
    Miao.L's Avatar
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    Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Hello,

    Does this sentence make sense? -

    I guess my light bulb moment literally came during that period when I was traveling and studying around different European countries- the stunning architectures and rich experience of building conservation turned me to a very different direction to pursue a humanities discipline- History of Architecture.

    I use 'literally' before the verb to emphasise the 'moment come'. Is it a correct way to be?

    Thank you for reading my question.

  2. #2
    Barb_D's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Hi and welcome to Using English.

    The word "literally" is often misused in English by native speakers.

    It means that something happened in fact, exactly that way.

    If I say "And I was literally screaming at him" it needs to mean that I was actually shouting. Unfortunately, please tend to use it as you have, to add emphasis, meaning "I was angry when I spoke to him."

    While your sentence is typical of common use, I can't say it's correct.
    I'm not a teacher, but I write for a living. Please don't ask me about 2nd conditionals, but I'm a safe bet for what reads well in (American) English.

  3. #3
    Miao.L's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Barb, thank you for your reply. If I use replace literally by 'virtually' . Is this sentence correct?

    I guess my light bulb moment virtually came during that period when I was travelling and studying around different European countries- the stunning architectures and rich experience of building conservation turned me to a very different direction to pursue a humanities discipline- History of Architecture.

  4. #4
    Munch's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Have to disagree with you there Barb_D. The word literally has been used as an intensifier in this way for a long time, by skilled writers of English.

    I can't post a link because this is only my second post but if you search google books for Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage, you will find an entry for the word "literally". Barb_D, perhaps you could help me by posting a link?

    The cites go back to 1847 (Thackeray) and there are examples of usage from a variety of 20th century authors.

    The word "really" is used in a similar way. Literally, "really" means something like "in fact" but it used in general as an intensifier. For example, "My blood was really boiling" just means "I was very angry".

    I agree however, that usuing "literally" in this way perhaps serves to confuse the meaning of the word when we really want to say literally, well, literally. So I am on your side in spirit, but usage is (literally?) against us.

  5. #5
    Munch's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Quote Originally Posted by Miao.L View Post
    Barb, thank you for your reply. If I use replace literally by 'virtually' . Is this sentence correct?

    I guess my light bulb moment virtually came during that period when I was travelling and studying around different European countries- the stunning architectures and rich experience of building conservation turned me to a very different direction to pursue a humanities discipline- History of Architecture.
    There are a few other small errors in your sentence, but I will just comment on the use of "virtually". I would say it is not needed in this sentence, because it is clear that "lightbulb moment" is a metaphor and not meant literally. Unless of course you had been previously talking about actual lightbulbs, but I think that is unlikely.

    Personally, the word "virtually" here suggests something more like "almost" rather than "metaphorical".

    ETA: "Lightbulb moment" is clearly a metaphor because a lit lightbulb appearing above someone's head is a well-known metaphor for a sudden realisation or inspiration.

  6. #6
    Barb_D's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Sure, I'm happy to post the link, and it's good to show differences of opinion.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally:
    Definition of LITERALLY

    1: in a literal sense or manner : actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>
    2: in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice Norman Cousins>

    Usage Discussion of LITERALLY
    Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.


    I note, though, that while it is frequently used that way, the usage note says it's frequently criticized as misuse, and that it's used where no additional emphasis is necessary. So you have to consider your audience. If you're talking to your friends, it's fine, but if your'e writing for the people who are 1) going to give you a grade, and 2) likely to be in the group of people who criticize it as misuse, then you should not use it that way.

    The problem I have with your sentence is that a "light bulb moment" is a flash, an instantaneous thing, which doesn't really work with a "period of travel" (though I envy you your travels!).

    How do you feel about saying something like your realization/inspiration came at some point in your travels?

    (And welcome to the forums, Munch.)
    I'm not a teacher, but I write for a living. Please don't ask me about 2nd conditionals, but I'm a safe bet for what reads well in (American) English.

  7. #7
    SoothingDave is offline VIP Member
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    The misuse of "literally" is a pet peeve. If people use "literally" when speaking figuratively, what word do we use when we are literally literal?

  8. #8
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Quote Originally Posted by Munch View Post
    Have to disagree with you there Barb_D. The word literally has been used as an intensifier in this way for a long time, by skilled writers of English.

    I can't post a link because this is only my second post but if you search google books for Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage, you will find an entry for the word "literally". Barb_D, perhaps you could help me by posting a link?

    The cites go back to 1847 (Thackeray) and there are examples of usage from a variety of 20th century authors.

    The word "really" is used in a similar way. Literally, "really" means something like "in fact" but it used in general as an intensifier. For example, "My blood was really boiling" just means "I was very angry".

    I agree however, that usuing "literally" in this way perhaps serves to confuse the meaning of the word when we really want to say literally, well, literally. So I am on your side in spirit, but usage is (literally?) against us.
    Yes, some people use the word incorrectly. Isn't that even more reason for teachers to teach the proper meaning? What's the point of using the word at all if one of its meanings is its opposite?

  9. #9
    Munch's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    I will respond in the post below so I can post some links. Sorry about this.

  10. #10
    Munch's Avatar
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    Re: Is it a correct way to use the word 'literally'?

    Thanks Barb_D but I wasn't talking about a webpage - my cite was from Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage. Here is the link:

    Merriam-Webster's dictionary of ... - Google Books

    I think the important point here is that in many situations using the word "literally" as an intensifier is not at all confusing. To take an example from my link, the phrase "They will literally turn the world upside down..." clearly uses the word "literally" as an intensifier and I can't see how this is at all confusing in this situation. No sensible person would interpret that as meaning that the world's axis somehow shifted!

    I said earlier that I agreed that it was unfortunate that the literal meaning of "literally" was being confused. But I have changed my mind - it is not really a problem, so long as people are clear in their use, and don't use it when there is potential confusion.

    Go back to the example of "really". It is used by most native speakers of English as a general intensifier but also means "literally" or "in fact". It is quite a common word, yet it does not seem to be a common source of confusion. So what is the problem with using "literally" in a similar way? As long as you are careful to avoid ambiguity (in the same way you must be when using "really"), there is no problem. SoothingDave, does the use of "really" in this way bother you? Do you often have trouble conveying the idea you mean something literally and not figuratively?

    Here is a link to a Slate article about this issue, if you are interested:
    http://www.slate.com/id/2129105/

    Raymott, on what do you base your claim that people are using the word incorrectly? Furthermore, there are many words which can be their own opposite - they are called auto-antonyms. They don't usually cause problems for proficient users of English because meaning is established through context and convention.

    http://people.sc.fsu.edu/~jburkardt/.../autoanto.html

    ETA:

    I found this quote from Frank Zappa. It shows how "literally" has not lost any of its meaning, despite also being used as an intensifier:

    "The most important thing in art is the frame. For painting: literally; for other arts, figuratively--because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins."

    Clearly, he is using "literally" to mean "not metaphorically". So don't worry about the meaning being confused!
    Last edited by Munch; 30-Sep-2010 at 00:16. Reason: fixed some links, 2nd time - found a new example I liked.

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