Word-wise: Literal vs Figurative


RIP… The word “literal” has died, and has been replaced by the word “figurative”. Unfortunately, the word “figurative” has been seen disguised as the word ” literal.

Don’t be fooled, if you see the word “literal” or the word “literally” around town, it’s actually the word “figurative” or the word “figuratively” in disguise.

RIP -“literal”. ~ A. Nikander

My friend, having Luddite tendencies, still wakes up to a radio alarm clock and actually listens to the radio programming whilst going about his morning routine.

“I woke up to my radio alarm clock, and within about 10 minutes, I heard two grammatical infractions in the use of this word.

Apparently, if I give money to a Haitian missions organization, I literally stick food in hungry children’s mouths… That would be cool, but I’m here, in Portland…”

As a reader, writer, and lover of words, it pains me greatly to witness how often words are misused and misunderstood. It especially bothers me when “writing and speaking professionals” use words incorrectly. However, it isn’t just my internal Grammar Nazi rising its harsh, critical head and deeming those who use the wrong words as imbecilic dolts.

While that may have been my modus operandi in my past, I now am more forgiving and willing to concede that not everyone has the same educational access or grammatical aptitude with which many of us have been gifted. I’ve also become more forgiving of the grammatical imperfections of others as I realize my own grammatical challenges with punctuation and other mechanics involved in writing.

No, I think it is most bothersome when I realize that many relational conflicts occur on the basis of the words being used. It is overly easy to take a misplaced word and change the entire meaning and intent of the original message. Then I realize that, often, the conflict isn’t as much from a misinterpretation or misunderstanding as it is from one person’s need to assert the rightness of his or her knowledge and understanding over the person who made the mistake, thereby putting that one in a defensive position.

We get hung up on rules of order and right vs wrong, forgetting that we are interacting with people who have feelings and life experiences where learning grammar and proper word usage may not have been life’s priority.

If you, like me, are instantly irritated by text speak and find yourself becoming snarky and agitated when you read or hear the word “literal” used where “figurative” should be, I have a couple of ideas for how to cope constructively.

The first is listen to yourself. If your first thought is name calling, then you’re not ready to address the situation in a helpful manner and will likely create or escalate conflict – over how a word is being used. “Imbecile, you meant ‘figurative’ instead of ‘literal.’ Learn how to use the dictionary,” reflects more negatively on your character than the other person’s language comprehension skills.

The second is to ask yourself, “Is this the right moment to address the grammar and word usage, or is something more important happening?” A secondary question to ask is, ” Is this a battle worth having right now?” Usually the answer is, “No!” Pick your battles and decide if this one is truly worth your time, energy, and a possible rift in the relationship. By focusing on a nit picky detail and derailing the conversation, you could be distracting and detracting from something which is important to the one communicating.

Thirdly, determine if it is your “place” to offer correction. If you aren’t in a position of parental, academic, or occupational authority in the other person’s life, then you really need to think about whether or not the relationship is more important than correcting his or her grammar. If the person speaking/writing has not specifically requested assistance, instruction, or correction regarding his or her language skills, then, let it go.

If you absolutely cannot let it pass, then, be as circumspect and respectful as possible in offering the correction, especially if you are correcting someone with whom you are not well acquainted. Do not blurt it out in front of others and make sure you’ve let go of any attitudes of superiority or judgment.

Finally, use humor without malice. If you want to joke about it, find a way to joke about the issue not the person. Avoid snark and sarcasm, unless interacting with someone fluent in their use. For example:

“Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” responded Literal upon hearing the obituary (listed above). “I have actually taken refuge with a network of devoted Grammarians, who do their best to ensure my correct usage. While it may be true, Figurative, has impersonated me, it is not her fault. She has been taken hostage by a group of pseudo-Grammarians. Within each forced impersonation she makes a hidden appeal to be rescued by the same network which protects me.”

Good grammar is important in achieving professional success, it’s true. However, constructive communication is important in all areas and relationships. Until next time, practice being word-wise and not just book-smart.



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