Monday, June 25, 2012

"Literally" drives me crazy

The misuse of "literally" drives me crazy. Well, figuratively that is. I haven't had to see a psychiatrist (or even a psychologist) about it and haven't yet had to take one of my herbal/vitamin stress formula tabs because of it. But it is annoying, frustrating and downright irritating (but not aggravating which means to make an existing condition worse, as in "typing long blog posts aggravates my carpal tunnel syndrome", and which is often misused for irritating which means, figuratively, to do to your mind what a mosquito bite does to your skin - but I digress...).

The point I'm making here is that literally means "according to the exact meaning of a word". So if you hear that a friend "literally died laughing" you should make plans to attend the funeral.

Literally is apparently a favorite pet peeve of a large number of people. Chris Bucholz chose literally as #1 of 7 "grammar errors that aren't" in a post on his blog. After explaining that literally is often used to mean just the opposite - that a gross exaggeration is implied and expected to be understood - he goes on to defend it as a natural change in word meaning. He's a brave man, but makes several good points. One point is historical use by famous authors for which he refers his readers to another good article on literally in the e-zine Slate. The other is that, though it may (figuratively) grate on our nerves, we are forced to admit that in nearly all cases we do know what they mean. Chris hastens to assure us that he is by no means condoning this misuse of literally, which as he puts it is "...a weak, even cliched way of emphasizing something...", he is just advocating a bit more tolerance. 

There is even a blog, called "Literally, A Web Log", devoted exclusively to the abuse of the word literally. The authors Patrick Fitzgerald and Amber Rhea list three categories of uses for the word:


Incorrect usage of “literally”. For example, “I literally dropped dead when I heard the news”.


Using “literally” when it is not needed. For example, “I literally lost hundreds of dollars in Vegas”.


A particularly good example of using “literally”. For example, “I literally bought the farm” to mean an exchange of money (not a loss of life).

The authors and readers post examples from news and other media of the use and misuse of literally. The website has 22 links to other websites on the subject. In 2009 the authors moved to a Facebook page where they continue to document misuses of literally

The Slate article - "The Word We Love to Hate - Literally" - is more scholarly and well researched. The history of the change in meaning is carefully documented. Towards the end of the 17th century "literally" was being used to emphasize true statements by writers, including Alexander Pope and Jane Austen. One hundred years later, by the end of the 18th century, "literally" was being used to emphasize statements which were figurative or metaphorical in nature. Authors guilty of this grammatical sin include: Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, James Fenimore Cooper, William M. Thackeray, Charles Dickens and Henry David Thoreau. Surprisingly it wasn't until the early 20th century that grammarians began to protest the misuse of the word. The article goes on to explain that literally has become just another contranym - a word with two opposite meanings - like cleave (to separate / to stick together) or scan (to read thoroughly / to skim quickly). 

So why does the misuse of literally stick in our craw (figuratively), when we overlook equally misused words like aggravate and scan? I don't really know. One of the reasons could be the feeling of self-satisfaction we experience when we know something someone else doesn't - like the actual meaning of the word "literally". Our feigned indignation may be merely our way of pointing out to others (and ourselves) how superior we are. In fact I suspect this is behind most grammarian sticklerism.

But if I hear one more person use literally for figuratively, I may scream. Literally. So plug your ears!


  1. I've been replacing "literally" with "actually". Does that make sense? Or is there a way in which those words are not interchangeable?

  2. What about virtually? I either use or abuse it but am not sure which.

  3. Paul: "actually" would be a good choice to emphasize the truthfulness of a phrase. If, however, "actually" was applied to a figurative phrase, it would be making almost the same mistake as with "literally". The custom of emphasizing truthfulness of statements goes back a long way. The King James Version of the New Testament often begins Christ's sermons with "Verily, verily, I say unto you..."

    1. Thanks, Stan! That's a good point about "actually". I agree it should not be applied to a figurative phrase.

      Regarding emphasizing truthfulness, my impression is that's done much more in spoken English these days than in written, although it appears in both. Do you get the same impression?

  4. BF: "Virtually" is almost as bad as "literally" unless you actually (thanks Paul) mean to say what it means. Like "literally", "virtually" has a specific meaning that a few English users seem not to be aware of. The Canadian OED definition: "1. in effect; practically; as far as essential qualities or facts are concerned. 2. nearly, almost." To paraphrase, it means "almost but not quite, but for all practical purposes close enough". Virtual Reality devices give you the same experience of doing something without actually doing it. Closest example I can come up with is the aircraft training simulators for pilots.

  5. Paul - hadn't thought about it but I'm sure you are right about emphasizing truthfulness. It's very common in conversational speech but rarely used in written. Reminds me of a comedian (Wes Harrison) telling stories about his ability to do vocal sound effects who said "Now this story is true.." then caught himself and added "well, they've all been true but I emphasize this one because it's so unbelievable".

  6. This morning the environmental columnist in the Saskatoon daily wrote about virtual water - the water we don't directly consume in drinking, cooking or washing but indirectly use from the production of foods we eat and other things we use. Who knew it took 10L water to make 1 sheet of paper? [now if that counts growing the tree, it's not fair].