A grammatical crisis of epic proportion is literally sweeping the nation — only not with a big broom.
This emergency involves the rampant, and woefully incorrect, usage of the word “literally.”
As with most things problematic, it all started with the Kardashians. On their reality show, the alliterative sisters (Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and a few others that also start with K) are fond of inserting the term into almost every other sentence, for unnecessary emphasis — “I am literally crying,” or “It is so hot I am literally sweating” — thinking it makes them seem smarter.
Which is funny.
There’s also an obnoxiously entertaining kids’ show that’s popular now called “The Loud House,” a cartoon series on Nickelodeon featuring a brood of children whose names all start with “L.” The eldest, a bossy 17-year-old girl named Lori, is also prone to the inappropriate usage of “literally.”
I like to think, but I could be wrong, that the show’s writers included that little detail as a good-natured dig at Kardashian Kulture. Which is also funny.
What’s not quite as amusing is that my 7-year-old daughter, who is a fan of “The Loud House” but thankfully not the Kardashians, has recently begun peppering her speech with “literally,” predictably with no real concept of what the word means.
Good luck trying to explain to a child the proper way to use that word. For the past 20 years, I have been a pretty decent writer and copy editor, although my skills are decidedly more intuitive than strictly grounded in grammatical rules. I know what’s right and what’s not, but I might have a hard time explaining exactly why. If I had to diagram a sentence, I’d probably get it wrong.
The other day, I sat down with my daughter with the intent of explaining when the use of “literally” is warranted.
“You need to say it only to make the distinction between something that’s figurative and something that really means what” [BENNGGH!] goes the “Family Feud” X rejection buzzer.
I took another stab at it: “You use literally when people might not know you’re using the true meaning of the word” [BENNGGH!] Strike 2. Her eyes were glazing over.
Luckily, before I could get to the inevitable Strike 3, her little sister came to the rescue, breathlessly talking about some emergency involving their princess dolls, and they were off, giggling.
I definitely had my work cut out for me because it was literally driving me crazy, ha ha, that my daughter was using a word so incorrectly, and that I was having so much trouble helping her fix it.
A week later, our family was on vacation, swimming in the shallow end of a pool, the girls happily floating on their Styrofoam “noodles.” A relentlessly friendly young girl, maybe 9 years old — we’ll call her “Stephanie” — drifted into our territory and abruptly insinuated herself into our lives.
“Hi, I’m Stephanie! Those are nice noodles — I would literally love to play with one of them!”
None of us knew quite how to deal with this intrusion, so we awkwardly said nothing.
“I have a joke!” Stephanie offered excitedly. “What do you eat at the pool? Noodles! I literally made that up.”
“Hey, Stephanie,” I said, not in a mean way. “Do you watch ‘The Loud House?’ ”
She brightened. “Yes, I literally love that show? Why?”
Later, back in the vacation condo, some random cartoon show was on TV. I wasn’t really paying attention to it, but suddenly something caught my attention: One of the characters mentioned that he literally wore his heart on his sleeve. The camera panned down to his arm, and lo and behold, there was a heart patch on his arm.
Eureka! My big chance!
I rushed over to my daughter.
“Hey, there’s a great example of the right way to use ‘literally!’ Usually, when people say they wear their hearts on their sleeves, they just mean they easily show their emotions, and people can tell right away how they’re feeling. But here, he said he literally wears his heart on his sleeve, and you see there’s an actual heart right there on his sleeve.”
Her eyes got wide, and a light bulb went off over her head (not literally). And then she laughed the delightful laugh that kids do when they feel the rush of true understanding.
And I laughed along with her, the rare laugh of Parental Success.
But I’m certainly not resting on my laurels — I’m literally dreading the day she starts calling everything “ironic.”