This will literally have you in stitches

Posted by on June 06, 2011

A recent round-up of language news featured an article by Robert Lane Greene, explaining his dislike of the word literally: ‘When used as a mere intensifier … it has almost no kick at all. And when misused, it can be spectacular.’ On the face of it, he has a point. We know that words don’t have to be confined to their original (‘literal’) meanings, but literally feels like a special case, and when the captain of a winning sports team says ‘we were literally on fire’ – when, in other words, literally is used to mean figuratively – there could be a problem.

It will come as no surprise that this usage (and the hostile reaction to it) is far from recent. In addition to the basic sense of ‘word for word’ (The Spanish equivalent for ‘I’m hungry’ is, literally, ‘I have hunger’), literally is often used as a device for adding emphasis, to stress that we really mean what we are saying:

This leaves no obvious signs of cause of death, as the animal literally dies of fright.

In the Macmillan English Dictionary, this emphatic use is shown as the first meaning, but following this is a ‘subsense’ (1a), explaining the usage that causes all the controversy – with the example When I told him the news, he literally exploded. Well over 100 years ago, this was also identified in the OED, which notes that literally is:

often used improperly to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense

This ‘improper’ use is supported by quotations from reputable authors like Alexander Pope, and in an excellent article devoted to the same issue, Jesse Sheidlower shows how a long list of revered literary giants (from Jane Austen to James Joyce) have also used this device. As Sheidlower points out, ‘most usage advice could be reduced to one simple instruction: “Be clear”.’ So the question is not whether it is logical to use a word to mean its opposite (language isn’t always logical), but whether this usage creates ambiguity and risks obscuring the speaker’s intended message. And the best way to test this  is to look at some corpus data.

Our corpus includes almost 30,000 examples of literally, and I’ve looked at a sample of 1000. The great majority reflect one of the unproblematic senses of literally. The ’emphatic’ use is especially common with numbers and measurements, and it’s easy to see why. People often exaggerate amounts (It weighed a ton, he’s got millions of CDs) so when we report what might look like a surprisingly high number, it makes sense to clarify that we are not exaggerating:

Pilgrims came literally in thousands, necessitating a branch rail line into the town.
We have then to investigate literally hundreds, possibly even thousands of different sites.

For similar reasons, we sometimes need to make it clear that an expression which is normally used metaphorically is in this case being used in its literal meaning:

He [the surgeon] delicately cut away the bone spurs in my lumbar spine these were literally ripping the nerves to shreds!
The problem is her son-in-law, whose sports supply shop has just, quite literally, gone up in smoke!


In the disputed use, the opposite happens: literally modifies an expression that is being used in its (normal) figurative meaning. Here the word has no real meaning. The intention is simply to add emphasis, but the effect can be disconcerting if we interpret literally to mean, err, ‘literally’:

There were a number of occasions when Southampton literally missed the boat in terms of economic development.
This year looks set to be bigger than ever, with application forms literally flying off the shelves.
We are literally thrown in at the deep end, being sent out into central London to find stories before the end of the day.
Your mother would literally roll in her grave if she heard you saying that.

It may be better to avoid this kind of thing, but it has to be said that – in all the corpus lines I looked at – the writer’s meaning was always perfectly clear. At first I thought this one looked odd:

Many people queued up to start the race, but only you completed it … In fact you beat off literally millions, even billions, of others to claim the prize.

How could a race involve billions of competitors? But the context (as it usually does) makes it all clear, as the writer continues:

Of course you won’t remember this. You were just a sperm at the time!

So the ‘problem’ use of literally looks like just another form of hyperbole, which attaches itself to expressions that are almost always used figuratively. It’s literally bananas!

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Comments (2)
  • One of my pet hates, I wrote a blog post about the misuse of ‘literally’ a few months ago. An excerpt:

    Just over a year ago now I was trapped on a bus with a schoolgirl who informed everyone loudly that she was *literally* going to DIE if her iphone didn’t arrive the next morning. I was reminded of her tonight, when a student on my train announced to her friends that she would *actually* kill herself if she had to stand up for the 20 minute journey up to Banbury.

    Twenty minutes later she was still whining loudly about the fact that the train was *actual carnage*, and I was about ready to buy her a razor blade. Or at least deliver a lecture on the etymological roots of ‘carnage’, potentially including a demonstration…

    Posted by Caroline on 6th June, 2011
  • Firstly, ‘literally’ is very rarely used in the way the purists think it should be; it is almost used as an intensifier of one sort or another. I think people perhaps confuse adverbs of manner (figuratively), and intensifiers. We often use intensifiers in ways that differ from their original meaning – ‘that’s terribly kind of you’, ‘it was ridiculously expensive.’.

    In fact I would suggest that ‘literally’ is the perfect intensifier for those hyperbolic expressions like ‘I (literally) jumped out of my skin’. What better way to strengthen a statement that something impossible happened to you than to say it really, actually happened.

    And funnily enough, nobody criticises other words when used like this. If someone says ‘I literally died of shame’, there are immediate knee-jerk shouts of ‘No you didn’t, you figuratively died of shame’, but if they say ‘I nearly died of shame’, nobody says, ‘No you didn’t; you were nowhere death’. And if I say ‘It’s really raining cats and dogs out there’, nobody says ‘No, it’s not really raining cats and dogs, only figuratively’.

    Posted by Warsaw Will on 23rd August, 2013
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