Saturday, September 6, 2003

Elaborating on Yesterday -- Literally!

Here's the money definition from Merriam-Webster's: "adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression."

In other words, it's what we do in the news business. We are literalists. We try to tell the facts and to use the most direct language in doing so.

But still, the word turns up. Over and over.

"The mayor arrived in downtown, literally the heart of the city."

"Wednesday was so hot you could literally fry an egg on the sidewalk."

Writers love "literally," despite their inability to use it correctly. They often want to emphasize a play on words or tired expression. In our first example, it's enough to say the mayor came downtown. The city isn't a living being. It has no organs. I once had an argument about this issue with a reporter. Sadly, she won.

In the second example, our reporter apparently spent the afternoon at a ballgame, or playing Tetris in the office. When the deadline loomed, he or she spewed out a story about the heat. It's doubtful egg-frying tests were conducted on local sidewalks. I hear this can really be done in Texas. But in most states, it's lazy writing. And not literal.

On a few stories, the word can be used accurately.

"Being struck by lightning was a hair-raising experience for Bernice -- literally!"

The word serves a purpose here. It tells us that the common expression and real life intersected for a brief, shocking moment. Such stories are thankfully rare.

Bottom line. Newspapers and writers should be literal. We want to tell readers the truth. "Literal" is implied in our job descriptions and the product we create. We don't have to say it.