This Post Will Literally Make Your Head Explode

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You hear it all the time. Maybe you say it all the time. Using literally when you don’t mean literally. I try not to let people’s usage foibles bother me, except when they’re the product of pretense. If someone use incidentses when they mean instances, I hope (at worst) to laugh it off or (at best) not even laugh secretly inside my head. But when people get all persnickety about other peoples’ grammar or command of the English language, my sense of grace evaporates a bit.

But I confess, literally is one of those words that brings out the super in my superciliousness. People say things like, “That literally scared me half to death,” which makes me wonder how a half death can be measured. Or, “I sat and stared for, literally, ten seconds,” as opposed to the figurative ten seconds that gets tossed about in idioms all the time.

People keep using that word. I don’t think it means what they think it means. Try a dictionary, people.

Okay. Here’s what the dictionary (Merriam-Webster, the real one) says about literally:

Definition of LITERALLY

1: in a literal sense or manner : actually [took the remark literally] [was literally insane]

Okay. Duh. Literally means literally. Except when it doesn’t.

2: in effect : virtually [will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins]

Wait, what now? Literally means virtually? Or, not really literally, but practically literally. Inconceivable! Dictionary, could you give me more info on this one?

Usage Discussion of LITERALLY

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

Got it. So people sometimes use literally extraneously (see my second example above; ten seconds is ten seconds, and it’s rarely necessary to use exaggerated language to clarify that the time given is not an exaggeration) but it is perfectly appropriate and sound to use literally hyperbolically even with figurative intentions.

As much as I have wanted the second definition of literally to be erroneous, it’s not. Literally can be used accurately to connote virtually when one wishes to convey the point exaggeratedly. While I hate admitting I was formerly among them in this case (okay, no, I don’t mind so much), I love it when the grammar snobs are wrong.

So the next time someone harps on your usage of literally when you genuinely mean virtually, tell him or her to go seek out a dictionary and shut their fat yapper. Literally.

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