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I was thinking about this in the context of creating task requirements, having having to explicitly define how a program is to function.

One might say:

Law is often described as black and white, for most cases it is quite clear whether something falls within the bounds of the law or not. However, unlike law, computer programming is quite literally black and white, there are no areas that are open for interpretation.

What I'm meaning, isn't that computer programming is literally the colours black and white. But that it is binary and deterministic, there's not room for interpretation. Whereas for other fields, even though law can be described as 'black and white' there are areas that are open for interpretation.

I think you could argue that the use of literally here is correct - that is, computer programming literally matches what the idiom 'black and white' is expressing.

If literally isn't correct, what phrase can one use here instead?

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    I don't think literally makes sense because computer programming doesn't inherently have the capacity to reflect colours, so it can't be black and white and, if you are using literally, then the figurative idiomatic speech would not work either. I would use perhaps 'essentially' or 'virtually'. – 0MM0 Sep 4 '14 at 22:59
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    say Unlike law, there are no gray areas in computer programmaing, no areas open for interpretation. – jlovegren Sep 4 '14 at 23:19
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    Except have you read a programming language spec? They are full of implementation-defined behavior. – Jim Sep 4 '14 at 23:20
  • @jlovegren Sure - I probably would use an expression like that for this context. For this question, I'm more interested if you can use literally with an idiom like this. – dwjohnston Sep 4 '14 at 23:23
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    I think the best solution is not to use the idiom "black and white" at all, it only confuses what you are trying to say in this paragraph. – augurar Sep 5 '14 at 4:13
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But haven't you heard? Literally means figuratively now! :-(

You could say:

Unlike law, computer programming is figuratively black and white; there are no areas that are open for interpretation.

Personally I'd just leave it out; it doesn't add anything...

Unlike law, computer programming is black and white; there are no areas that are open for interpretation.

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    'literally' doesn't mean 'figuratively' that's an oversimplification. Literally can be used as hyperbole. For example 'The kids were literally bouncing of the walls'. What you're saying here, is literally that they were bouncing of the walls, but of course that's not what was happening, you were telling a lie for dramatic effect. – dwjohnston Sep 4 '14 at 23:13
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    Re: the example you gave, that's doesn't work - because law can also be described as black and white, but not 100% so like computer programming. – dwjohnston Sep 4 '14 at 23:14
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    Wha? The example I gave? I literally copied and pasted the "Unlike law, computer programming is [...] black and white" example from your question. – tobyink Sep 4 '14 at 23:18
  • That's what I'm saying. Law can be desribed as black and white (but it's not really), whereas computer programming quite [literally] is black and white. – dwjohnston Sep 4 '14 at 23:19
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    Well then say what you're saying. If you want to make the point that law is sometimes claimed to be black and white but in fact there are areas open to interpretation, then you should say "law is sometimes claimed to be black and white but in fact there are areas open to interpretation". Don't make your point through the subtle placing of a particular adverb; people won't pick up on it. – tobyink Sep 4 '14 at 23:24
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Of course using literally here doesn't equate to your what you say in the second part, which is this:

Unlike law, computer programming is unquestionably black and white; there are no areas that are open for interpretation.

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Perhaps avoid the "B&W" metaphor and say exactly what you mean, e.g.: "While law is addressed to human beings, many of whom are trained in the art of construing and applying whatever it says in a sensible way, computer programming is addressed to machines with no such capacity for judgment, and therefore must be written to state exactly the task to be performed, and to cover all eventualities, including calling for human guidance when unexpected events occur."

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