Technically, Literally

There are times when the Little Man and the Little Miss say things that other people say all the time, but which sound surprising coming from them. Recently, it has been their colloquial use of the words, “Technically” and “Literally.”

The Little Man might be describing something he built in Minecraft. “And then,” he’ll say excitedly, “I built this tunnel that literally goes through the mountain.” The Little Miss will be describing her day in school, and say something like, “And then my friend go put on the ‘think about it’ list because she technically didn’t do what the teacher said.”

Although I am guilty of using “literally” if I am I over-excited about something, I’ve taught myself to avoid it in my writing, and that has helped me avoid it in my speaking. There was a time when I was something of a know-it-all, and often would clarify things, by saying “Technically…” while the people around me understandably rolled their eyes. I broke that habit a long time ago. I think.

Strunk & White have this to say about “literally” in The Elements of Style:

Often incorrectly used in support of exaggeration or violent metaphor.

I like the term “violent metaphor.”

My dictionary defines “literally” this way: “in a literal sense or manner: actually.” Strunk & White would prefer “actually” because it omits needless words. Confusion arises, however, because the dictionary provides a second definition: “in effect: virtually.” It does on to try to explain the confusion:

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 often appears in context where no additional emphasis is necessary.

In other words, saying “And then, my head literally exploded,” is fine because it is hyperbole. But the hyperbole is probably excessive. It is just as effective to say, “And then, my head exploded.”

Strunk & White have nothing to say on the use of “technically.” My dictionary defines the term as “something technical, esp: a detail meaningful only to a specialist.”

I don’t know when “technically” became part of the vernacular. We live in a technical age, sure, but the term is not used in a technical sense. It’s more often used to correct what the speaker thinks of as an inaccurate piece of information.  How did we go from a detail meaningful only to a specialist, to add an almost parenthetical detail, as in the Little Miss saying, “because she technically didn’t do what the teacher said.”

Still, things could be worse. When I was growing up, everything was wicked, or rad, and spoken conversation was a staccato of “likes.” “I was like, ‘No way dude,’ and he was like, ‘Way dude.’”

You literally can’t get any worse than that, although technically, you probably can.


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