Home > Life, Writing and Poetry > Meanings – Who’s Literal and Who’s Not

Meanings – Who’s Literal and Who’s Not

The vast majority of people use very few words literally, it seems. We say, “hang on half a sec,” when what they really mean is “just stay there waiting until I’m ready to deal with you. I have important stuff going on over here that I need to finish.”

Writers use figurative verbage and semantic gymnastics all the time in their dialogue and their narrative, because they expect the reader to “get it.”  How many times have you been zipping along reading a book that was so thoughtfully written to take figurative language into account, when suddenly you get stopped cold in your reading tracts? *You just came to a word that in context, the figurative context that is, came up dry for either contextual placement or semantic referral. Tracts is still good, I assure you.

For example, if you’re reading a book about old-time gold mining where the writer has been discussing the building and use of sloughs and the writer takes an abrupt right turn down to the slough and describes the bog below the actual slough site, what are you supposed to think?

Well, if you’re up on your verbal calisthenics, you might realize that he’s quite right and then expect him to go on and talk about the smaller particles of gold sloughing off and running down the slough to the slough. He’d be correct in that, too.  (By the way, the pronunciation guide to that last sentence is as follows: “..particles of gold sluffing off and running down the slew to the slow.” Personally, I just loved building that sentence to make my point. The word “slough” has four/five distinct meanings and as many pronunciations. But if you’re a reader who doesn’t know that and reads that sentence, you will think I’ve gone out of my mind or the printer had a really bad night before the day he set it to print.

We have been geared for many, many years to think, talk, read and write from a figurative perspective. More miscommunication springs from that trend than most anything else, I think. You see, there are those walking among us who are literal thinkers. In some parlance they’re referred to as linear thinkers. There are also curvilinear thinkers.

Linear for these purposes is equated with literal, curvilinear with figurative. Many years ago when I was at university, I had the most frustrating evening of my life. I was with a friend, and we were visiting one of his friends. My friend and I were figurative people. His friend was not. I will call him Lyle. Don’t know why, but that just sort of suits him.

Now, Lyle was brilliant, never doubt it, but he couldn’t comprehend the figurative mindset. Then again, he was finishing his grad work in a branch of physics that most people cannot even  pronounce, strictly theoretical. If what you said was not strictly literal, he could only argue for there was no meaning to your words that he could grasp. I can be literal when I absolutely have to, but that’s not how I normally think, so I had one heck of a time just telling him how I perceived things in the world. When a person has little or no sight describes how her world looks to her in concrete terms, it’s a nigh-onto-an-impossible task.

I learned that evening how frustrating the literal world really was and how comfortable curvilinear thinking could be. When we speak in figurative speech, so much is taken for granted by both parties. It also allows for double entendres and nuance, which the literal world cannot achieve. An excellent example of a character who is literal to the point of excrutiation is Bones, that beautiful and thoroughly literal anthropologist that we can’t get enough of. She does have such learning yet to do, after all.

When you stop to think about it, the proving of a theory is very linear, since all steps must progress in an orderly and straightforward fashion to be accurate and documented. The idea to question the subject and come up with the theory, however, is strictly curvilinear in nature. Questioning current reality or something within that reality, demands that an individual perform an intuitive leap in order to think of an improvement on something or in order to apply something already in existence to another purpose or use.

I think that’s why not everyone can be figurative. Okay, it’s a stretch, but think about it. If everyone was a figurative [curvilinear] thinker, who would find out why a virus does what it  does, how long it will take before nano technology can be used regularly in the human body to repair various conditions without surgery, why the climate is changing faster than predicted, or whatever needs proving.

Those leaps of intuitive brilliance are all well and good even in application until something happens and an explanation must be provided. Without that linear research the application could have major flaws that would erupt somewhere down the line to produce horrendous effects.

So, after all this blather about thinking, have you decided yet? Which one are you? Straight-line thinker or messy nuance kid? Must you have the precise time when you ask someone for it, or is the ballpark okay by you? Must you give each tiny detail of an explanation, or will an analogy work for you? You decide.

There’s nothing wrong with either one. It’s merely a matter of how your brain works. I don’t know. It could even be hardwired that way like so many other things. I haven’t seen any studies on it, but then, I haven’t looked for them, either. Perhaps that’s something I might consider for the future; an article regarding the possible hard wiring of the writer’s mind.

What do you think? Should it be on whether or not there is hard wiring for literal and figurative language preference and use? What about “Does a Writer’s Use of Figurative Language Appeal to Only Half the Population?” I like the connotation of that last one, though the other would be good too.

The only thing worse than dealing with a literal thinker, from the figurative point of view, is dealing with someone who isn’t literal either but uses sarcasm to deliberately stop somebody short. That’s just plain mean, at least to my way of thinking.

Well, there you have it. Enjoy your exercise in self-thought. You might be surprised what you find. But don’t be surprised if you discover that, like many people, you fluctuate between the two modes according to the situation. That’s perfectly normal, too.

A bientot,


Categories: Life, Writing and Poetry
  1. December 20, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    This is a real nice post i also bookmarked your site and look for more updates. thanks.

    • claudsy
      December 21, 2009 at 9:48 pm

      Thank you, Cindy. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please come again anytime and tell all your friends as well.


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