Misused Words: Ironic and Literally

Ironic and Literally

Put on your pedantry hats, it’s time to look at some commonly misused words! To be specific, two of the most frequently misused terms in the English language: ‘ironic’ and ‘literally’.

Does the misuse of these words matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not compared to climate change or the threat of nuclear war. Nevertheless, in formal writing clarity is crucial, so you should try to avoid the following mistakes.

Ironic (Opposed to Expectations)

The word ‘ironic’ is commonly used to mean ‘coincidental’ or ‘unexpected’ (this is even listed as an informal definition in some dictionaries). Perhaps the most famous example of ‘ironic’ being used this way comes from Alanis Morissette’s song ‘Ironic’, which contains lines like:

It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

Nobody is denying that this would be frustrating. However, the actual meaning of ‘ironic’ is ‘contrary to expectation’ and there’s nothing in the lyric that suggests we should expect the availability of a knife. For it to be ironic, it’d have to say:

It’s like ten thousand spoons [in a knife factory] when all you need is a knife.

Here, for instance, because you’d expect a knife factory to contain knives, having an ample supply of spoons but no knives would be ironic. This is known as situational irony.

Morissette commissioned this knife with the money she made from 'Ironic' and now carries it with her everywhere. Do not cross Alanis unless you want to get stabbed.

Morissette later commissioned this blade and now carries it everywhere, so she’ll never be knifeless again.

There are two other kinds of irony, too: verbal irony (saying the opposite of what you mean) and dramatic irony (when an audience is aware of something that the characters in a story don’t know).

In each, however, the key to being ‘ironic’ is that something occurs in a way that seems unexpected given the situation at hand.

Literally (In Actual Fact)

These days, ‘literally’ is often used to add emphasis, effectively meaning ‘virtually’ or ‘figuratively’ when referring to something that isn’t actually true:

This film is so funny, I’m literally dying of laughter!

For example, we wouldn’t usually take the above to mean that the speaker is actually suffering a fatal case of the giggles. Rather, we know it means that they are laughing a lot.

However, the original definition of ‘literally’ is ‘according to the actual definition of a word’ or ‘without exaggeration’. This makes it the complete opposite of ‘figuratively’. As such, the only way you can ‘literally’ die from laughter is if it leads to a cardiac arrest.

It's too funny! Someone call a doctor!

It’s just too funny! Someone call a doctor!

Consequently, in formal writing, you should only use ‘literally’ when referring to something that is actually the case. Such as in the following:

Naming a song ‘Ironic’ despite the lyrics not containing any irony is literally ironic.

Sorry, Alanis. We know it’s been said before, but you really screwed up on the use of ‘ironic’ there. It’s a fun tune, though. We’ll grant you that.

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