Was Rick Perry Literally Wrong? Correct Use of the Word “Literally”

Comedians and political pundits in the United States have been making fun of Texas Governor Rick Perry because of his use of the word literally. In a recent presidential debate, Perry said Iran would invade Iraq "literally at the speed of light."

Literally means "actually" or "in a literal manner." Iran cannot actually (literally) invade Iraq at the speed of light. Perry's use was incorrect.

But where did he learn it? I wondered how the governor could make such an unfortunate, much mocked error. My curiosity led me to to my bookshelf.  

It turns out there is plenty of precedent for using literally figuratively, as Perry did. The governor is not alone.

My reference books do not recommend Perry's use, but they report similar examples:

Fowler's Modern English Usage reports this use way back in 1863: "I literally coined money."

Garner's Modern American Usage offers examples from the 1980s and 1990s, including "Life literally has been turned upside down."

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives the definition "in effect, virtually," with the example "will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice."

The American Heritage College Dictionary says in its definition "used as an intensive before a figurative expression." In its usage note, the dictionary says that although such use of literally may be "infelicitous, it cannot be said to be incorrect."

My conclusion: Although Perry's use of literally is out of favor, it is not as foolish as it seemed.

Then when should literally be used? The word fits when you want to reassure your reader or your audience that you mean what you say. You are not exaggerating or using language loosely.

Here are correct examples:

He continued typing for literally another minute while I sat there. (Literally indicates an actual minute, not just a few seconds.)

I literally cried. (Literally indicates real tears.)

The official waved us through, and we literally ran onto the airplane. (We actually ran.) 

When you translate Schadenfreude literally, it is "harm-joy." (The parts of the word do mean "harm" and "joy.")

Sometimes people use literally in a literary way, which is also correct:

The roller-coaster teen years began literally at Busch Gardens, where we spent Eva’s 13th birthday riding the Griffon, “the world’s tallest, floorless dive coaster.” (From our holiday letter)

When it comes to success, the sky's the limit–literally and figuratively. (From the website of a satellite company)  

Your audience may not speak your language literally or figuratively. (From an article on business writing)

But often the word literally can be cut from business messages:

The thank-you note is literally your last chance to impress a potential employer.

He literally turns down more business than he accepts.

Was Rick Perry literally wrong?

What would you add to this discussion about literally? I welcome your comments, but please do not get into politics. As you know, this is the Business Writing blog.

Lynn
Syntax Training

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Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact. A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors. A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media. Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

9 COMMENTS

  1. How do you keep finding my pet peeves? Here I thought you had literally addressed all of them and you find another! I go into cognitive dissonance when people use the word “literally” when what they’re saying or writing cannot possibly be true in a literal sense. I fail to hear the important parts of their message because I cannot help but focus on such a flagrant misuse of a word that, literally, is supposed to mean something.

    Other than that, I don’t really have an opinion on this subject. 😉

  2. Another one in that vein is the use of “truly.” Truly is truly a waste of space on paper or to read in an e-mail. I literally edit it out every time I see it. Keep up the good work – I “truly” love this blog.

  3. This is one of my favorites. You can only understand the impact if you literally utilize the most unique verbiage.

  4. Hmm…”When it comes to success, the sky’s the limit–literally and figuratively.” You think that’s OK?

    If so, then now I know what to blame when I don’t get promoted. Damn you, darn sky! Stop limiting me!

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