‘Literally fly off the shelves’ – am I a word snob?

This email alert arrives from a website I’m subscribed to and yells at me:

‘Copywriting secret – makes your products literally FLY off the shelves’

I have visions of people in supermarkets ducking as boxes of cereal leap of the shelves at them. I smile patronisingly.

But then I click through to see what this copywriting secret is.

So does that mean you can write great enticing marketing copy while playing fast and loose with the language?

Yes. But.

Yes, you can, quite successfully. But in the end you give out a sense of shabbiness, a messy feeling of a lack of attention to detail. That feeling infects the brand.

Treating language like this generates a particular tone of voice, and that is a brash insincere voice broadcasting at me. ‘DON’T MISS THESE UNMISSABLE DEALS!!!!’ type thing. A bit like those recorded phone calls that tell me I’ve won a free holiday. I’m instantly suspicious.

So you can get away without being precise with your language but it generates a negative effect. That’s my opinion anyway, and if that makes me a word snob, so be it. I literally don’t give a flying one.

PS I mean, what does ‘literally’ mean here if it doesn’t mean what it actually means? Does it mean something like ‘really really’? As in ‘make your products really really fly off the shelves’. I think it must do, but I also think it has a little air of being sincere, serious and clever about it. ‘I was quite literally boiling with rage,’ you can imagine someone saying very seriously to you about something awful that happened to them.

In which case misusing it is doubly bad. Because it undermines that seriousness, making the person using it not only look unserious but a bit of a fool.

And its misuse also undermines its genuine power when used in its true sense: ‘I was literally shaking with rage’. I like that power and I think it would be a pity if the language lost it.

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