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Real Words that Work - Literally this, literally that 

By Patricia Davies, President, Patricia Davies Communications

Literally this, literally that

Who decreed that “literally” is a good way to emphasize a point? It feels as if there is literally an epidemic of the word: one recent morning I read it twice by 10 a.m. Both times the writers misused the word, as I just did.

Example One: "This is the best thriller I’ve read in five years. Once I was 30 pages in I literally couldn’t put it down.” This quote is from Stephen King, according to a book ad. 

Example Two: A contributor to an international communications website declared she only needed “literally two minutes” of a particular CEO’s time. 


Literally means exact, word-for-word, not figuratively or metaphorically or any other ly’s that leave room for exaggeration or interpretation. When literally is used for emphasis, it invites your readers to challenge your credibility, especially in a work setting.  Did Mr. King really never put the book down to go for a cup of coffee, check his Blackberry or slice open a bagel? Did the website contributor need exactly two minutes, not maybe one or three?


Unless you intend to convey an exact meaning, don’t use it. 

“Once I was 30 pages in I couldn’t put it down.”

“I need about two minutes of your time.”

Patricia Davies is an award-winning writer and editor, an Endorsed Education Provider with IIBA®, and a regular panelist on the IIBA Being a BA: Effective Communication: Webinar (first Tuesday of every month). Have you got a writing question? Please email to and we’ll try to address it in a future column or Webinar.