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Richard Nordquist

Literal and Figurative Escapes

By June 6, 2011

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Today's lesson comes from children's book author Lemony Snicket. It concerns the power of reading and two commonly confused words.

It is very useful, when one is young, to learn the difference between "literally" and "figuratively." If something happens literally, it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it's happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy. If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters. The Baudelaire orphans walked back to Count Olaf's neighborhood and stopped at the home of Justice Strauss, who welcomed them inside and let them choose books from the library. Violet chose several about mechanical inventions, Klaus chose several about wolves, and Sunny found a book with many pictures of teeth inside. They then went to their room and crowded together on the one bed, reading intently and happily. Figuratively, they escaped from Count Olaf and their miserable existence. They did not literally escape, because they were still in his house and vulnerable to Olaf's evil in loco parentis ways. But by immersing themselves in their favorite reading topics, they felt far away from their predicament, as if they had escaped. In the situation of the orphans, figuratively escaping was not enough, of course, but at the end of a tiring and hopeless day, it would have to do. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny read their books and, in the back of their minds, hoped that soon their figurative escape would eventually turn into a literal one.
(Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning, or Orphans! HarperCollins, 2007)

To find out about other commonly confused words, visit our Glossary of Usage. To learn more about the experiences of the Baudelaire orphans in The Bad Beginning (and in 12 other "bothersome books"), visit the official website of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

More About Commonly Confused Words:

Image: The Bad Beginning, or Orphans! (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1) by Lemony Snicket (HarperCollins, 2007)


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