Further explorations of some troublesome English words…


How to annoy half the population without really trying: use the word literally when you’re talking about something that couldn’t actually happen. Examples:

He was so angry, his head literally exploded.

There were literally millions of people in the supermarket.

I literally died laughing!

Plenty of people will tut and point out that literal means the factual sense of a word. Something literal is taken back to its basic, unimaginative truth. If something literally happened, then it really, really did happen.

So how did the word come to be used for the opposite meaning? For events that are not just untrue, but actually couldn’t be true?

Imagine that something highly unusual or unlikely genuinely did happen to you. Imagine describing it to someone who doubts you.

‘…and the Prime Minister was right there buying loo rolls. Literally right there between me and the Andrex…’

‘…So I turned round and was nose-to-nose with a great white shark. I mean literally nose-to-nose…’

You’d use the word to add weight to your story – to make the point that something unexpected really did occur. That emphasis has become over-extended; it’s now very common to hear literally used to describe the impossible. To many people, it’s just another way of emphasising extreme situations.

Is it such a big deal, then? Well, it’s worth considering what it means to take things literally.

If someone takes things literally, they have trouble working out when others are exaggerating for effect. For example, they may struggle with understanding sarcasm, or idioms such as He was running round in circles or You can say that again. They may think someone really was running in circles, or that they really do need to repeat themselves. Plenty of native English speakers have this problem, and it must be even more of an issue for English language learners.

So, what if there was a word that we could add to unexpected sentences that really are true, to help our listeners work out that we mean it? Well, luckily there is. And that word is… (drum roll, please…) literally.

When literally is used for something that’s obviously not true, it’s still considered to be non-standard English (ie, informal or wrong). The time may come when no-one worries about this distinction. Until that time, many of us still think it is a distinction worth preserving.

Loose / Lose

The confusion between these two is all to do with what you can hear. They both sound as if they have OO in them, so lots of people spell lose as loose.

But no. Loose has nothing to do with not winning a game. It means not tight, or moving freely. It is pronounced with a soft ‘SSS’ sound. Here are some examples of it in action:

The chickens were running loose all around the garden.

Her dress looked odd because one sleeve was looser than the other.

            Carefully loosen the top of the bottle.

If you can’t find something, or someone doesn’t win, the word you need is lose. And it is only spelt with one O, not two. In other words, you need to lose an O to spell lose.

            He was determined not to lose his keys.            

Do low-ranking teams get too used to losing?

I love Scrabble but I admit I can be a bad loser.

There’s not much sense to the spelling. I can’t think of another word that sounds like lose and has the same spelling pattern – so the confusion is understandable.

You might remember it by thinking of the related word lost. That only has one O as well: lost / lose.


Lots of people use alot a lot. But alot is not a word. When alot is written as one word by mistake, it means a large number, or something that happens frequently. Those should be separate words – a lot. Eg:

What a lot of tattoos you have!

 Bertha goes swimming a lot.

 A lot of people make this mistake.

Let’s say you have some of your favourite sweets. (Mine are white chocolate truffles, since you ask.) You start off with a few sweets. Someone knows you like them so they bring you more in a bag. Your mate Jim brings you a box of them. Your auntie is a real star, and buys you a sack of sweets. Now you’re running out of storage space – you have a cupboardful. You might even need a wheelbarrow.

Anyone can see that you have a lot of those sweets. Think about that as we move to the final tip…

 A lot is just another amount. You wouldn’t write afew, abag, abox, asack, acupboardful or awheelbarrow. So don’t write alot.


This blog was adapted from my book Wrong Words and How to Right Them. Almost as good as having a proofreader at your beck and call… and it comes with quizzes, quirky facts, Quick Fix tips and in-depth explanations too.

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