- On June 3, 2015
The other day Staples sent an email with a subject line that read, “Over 60% off this LITERALLY hot item.” I opened it to find a picture of a toaster oven.
Oh, Staples, you sabotaged your pun. You have an item that is literally hot to the touch and is figuratively a hot-selling item. But by shoehorning literally into the sentence, you lose that double entendre.
In last summer’s hit song, “Word Crimes,” Weird Al Yankovic lambasted literally:
“And I thought that you’d gotten it through your skull
What’s figurative and what’s literal
Oh but, just now, you said
You literally couldn’t get out of bed
That really makes me want to literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head”
I’m not going that far. In casual conversation, it’s fine to slip in a literally to emphasize a point. Who hasn’t said something like, “I literally ate the whole pint of ice cream in one sitting”? But when the word creeps into business communication, we weaken what we’re saying—and in a case like Staples’, miss an opportunity for clever marketing.
I read an article in which a consultant who coaches retirees said, “When someone retires, they tend to be literally levitating with excess productivity that can’t be channeled.” With literally, he cluttered up that excellent word picture of restless retirees possessed of energy enough to catapult themselves into thin air. I wish he had said, “When people retire, it’s as if they’re levitating with excess productivity that can’t be channeled.”
Sometimes, literally can be used correctly for emphasis, like it was in this sentence about Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, “And while she did not literally sleep through the interview, as she famously did at a key meeting with ad executives at the Cannes Lions event, she certainly seemed to be sleepwalking through this public effort to explain her company’s current predicament.”
Yet, more often than not, it’s better to drop the word, which Bruce Springsteen should have done when he was asked to name authors who most influenced his decision to become a songwriter. He cited Flannery O’Connor, James M. Cain, John Cheever, Sherwood Anderson, and Jim Thompson, saying they all “are still the cornerstone literally for what I try to accomplish today.”
Literally zaps the power of that statement. But hey, he’s The Boss, so he can say whatever he wants.