Don’t Be Too Liberal With “Literal”

20 May 2008

On the April 16th 2008 broadcast of Morning Joe on MSNBC, columnist Mike Barnacle reported on a primary rally:

They appeared separately, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama back-to-back, Hillary Clinton came out and she sounded like the substitute teacher who comes in and makes sure you finished your homework, and Barack Obama literally, you know, lit the crowd on fire. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s hope Senator Obama didn’t kill anyone.

Even experienced writers have become too liberal in their use of “literal.” Barnacle did not mean that Senator Obama doused the crowd’s members in gasoline and took a match to them. Barnacle meant that the senator figuratively set the crowd on fire.

When you want your reader to interpret your words exactly as written, use “literal.” For example, if reporting on fisticuffs that turned deadly, you might say, “The thugs literally beat the homeless man to death.” When writing figuratively, cut the misused word.