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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Malpass

Literal Versus Figurative

He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald is literally holding a #2 pencil in his right hand in this photo from 1921.

Okay, that quote's misleading. Why did legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald write such a thing? Jay Gatsby didn't literally glow. He wasn't incandescent, nor fluorescent, nor even luminescent. Was he even merely effervescent? Or was he simply just plain happy?

I know. I know. It's a figure of speech. And who am I to disagree with such a great American author? After all, "F." was a literary giant. But at a height of 5' 9", he wasn't a literal giant. At least not the way I figure it.

Therefore, I've got an ax to grind (figuratively). Because literal is not the same as figurative (literally). So please, people, pause to reconsider your word choice before you announce:

  • You were literally going to cough up a lung.

  • Your mother is literally the kindest woman in the world.

  • This blog post is literally the dumbest thing you've ever read.

Instead, try these alternate expressions:

  • You endured an agonizing illness featuring a painful, hacking cough.

  • Your mother's reputation as consistently kind is never refuted by anyone who knows her at all.

  • This blog post is a large, glittering jewel in the crown of literary magnificence (figuratively, that is).

The crown of literary magnificence. (And that's literally the cutest puppy wearing a fuzzy bejeweled crown I've ever seen, at least in this picture!)

Okay, well give it some thought anyway.

Editor's note: Will spent a good-sized chunk of the last two days redesigning the website. We certainly hope you'll enjoy THE MAIN THING's fresh new appearance. Look for new blog entries biweekly, typically Tuesdays and Fridays. But don't freak out (figuratively) if Will occasionally posts on an alternate day.

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