The Proper Use of ‘Literally’. Please Stop Abusing the Word!

Recently, a new language trend has popped out into the mouths of the world, and it’s driving me to distraction. It’s similar to that time everyone started adding ‘like’ every other word they said, which was irritating, made little to no sense, and horribly catching. Suddenly, everything was a simile. Let’s stop this tsunami of language degradation before it becomes as ear-twistingly common as the ‘like’ plague.

Literally has two basic meanings: it either means “actually” or “without exaggeration”. It’s a wee bit ironic that a word meaning ‘without exaggeration” is being used to exaggerate sentences – mostly incorrectly at that. Either people use it without a clear understanding of its meaning, or they use it redundantly.

Let’s first get to grips with the difference between something which is literal and something which is figurative. If something is literal it is a real existing thing. If something literally happened, it happened in reality, in a tangible, knowable way. Contrary wise, if something is figurative it means it isn’t real. It is a figure of our mind or imagination which is untouchable and not real. We use figurative language poetically, often to exaggerate events or feelings.

For example:

You could say “Our new blue carpet is like an ocean”, and you would be using a simile, comparing your choice of flooring to the sea. If you say “Our new blue carpet is literally like an ocean”, then I would expect to see boats actually bobbing on the surface and waves crashing against your kitchen cabinets. In the first instance you used a figurative, narrative device to convey your feelings about how you see the carpet. In the latter case you are stating the carpet is actually like an ocean, and everyone will see it as an actual ocean, starfish, mermaids, and all.

If you say “I want to kill you”, chances are you are exaggerating your anger towards someone for an infraction on their part; you are being figurative, and do not mean exactly what you say. If you say “I literally want to kill you” then you’re a psychopath. This means you actually want to kill the person who has caused you rage. You might even be brandishing the knife as you speak.

In my opinion, you only need to use ‘literally’ for one reason: if something that actually happened can be misconstrued for a metaphor or figurative statement.

For example:

The sentence “I bumped into a friend, yesterday” can be taken to mean you happened across an acquaintance while out somewhere. However, “I literally bumped into a friend, yesterday” would mean, you had a physical collision with that person. It means you actually bumped into them in the literal sense. You are not exaggerating through figurative narrative when you say you ‘bumped into them’, you mean you crashed. That is what that means. Okay?

Moreover, if you say “Martin rocked the boat” you might mean Martin caused unnecessary problems in the figuartive sence. However, you might mean Martin was on an actual boat and actually caused it to shift from side to side in the real water. In this case, you would add ‘literally’ to distinguish the reality of the situation. “Martin literally rocked the boat”.

The rule of thumb here is that if you’re not actually, physically doing something leave off the ‘literally’.

In scenarios where there is no chance of a a literal statement being mistaken for a figurative one you don’t need to add ‘literally’

For example:

This happened to me the other day (notice how the omission of ‘literally’ on my part did not hinder the understanding of what I meant). My housemate said “My dad drove me literally all the way to school”. In this case there is no need for literally, because there is no figurative alternative to that sentence. Given the sentence and the context, there is no way I would take this to be any form of metaphor. Therefore, ‘literally’ is technically correct, but redundant. “My dad drove me all the way to school” would have sufficed.


Now stop with the crazy. Please, before I figuratively bang my head against a wall.



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