Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Grammar Gripe Tuesday

Three words rarely used correctly and meaningfully are: clearly, obviously, and literally. Though these words have their appropriate uses, they've become so misused in modern English that they should raise a red flag each time you write them.

Clearly & obviously

Clearly and obviously both suffer from the same common misuse, which is that as a meaningless transition between two ideas. Take the following example:

X and Y are large values. Clearly, we don't have enough time to compute Ackermann's function with X and Y as its inputs.

Such use of clearly is self-defeating. If the reader happens not to know about Ackermann's function, then clearly is flat wrong; it's not clear. But if the reader does know about Ackermann's function, then you don't need to alert them to the clarity of the statement. If the statement is clear, they'll know. In any event, it's bad form to point out the obvious.

Obviously, X is greater than Y.

If it were obvious that X is greater than Y, then hopefully you'd have the sense not to write it. Maybe the word you're looking for is thus or therefore.


The average person probably has a good reason to use the word literally no more than four or five times a year. Literally shouldn't be a common word, but somehow it is, having taken on a new meaning as a kind of superlative—as when mere figurative speech won't do.

On our camping trip the mosquitoes literally ate us alive.

Wow! Man-eating mosquitoes! A zombie that can write! Forget whatever point the author was trying to make; I want to know more about what it's like to be reanimated.

The correct use of literally is when you intend to be taken non-figuratively while using a phrase that's commonly a figure of speech. For example:

George literally worried himself sick over his midterm exams.

We know George is not merely anxious about the exams; he's actually sick, and probably puking is involved.

These gripes may seem small, but they're part of communicating well. These days, anyone reading your words has countless distractions vying for their attention and thus isn't in need of additional reasons to find something else to read. To be taken seriously, first use your words seriously.


Chad said...

Literally means "figuratively", and figuratively means "relating to figurines."

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Chad— You're one of the most figurative people I know—literally.

Laura said...

So when can I use clearly or obviously without sounding pompous or redundant?

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Laura— Not often.