Are You Literally Being Literal?

How many times have you heard people throw the word literally around? It’s one of those words that has become common to use, but few really think about what the word actually means. And probably quite a few don’t really care. But we writers should care about the literal meaning of the word literally, and try to understand the difference between literal and literally. We hear or read expressions like these:

  • “My eyes literally popped out of my head.”
  • “That was literally the worst party ever!”
  • “I literally had to use a knife to cut through that whipped cream.”

The word literally means “in a literal sense or manner.” Literal means “completely true and accurate” or “free from exaggeration.” At least, that’s one definition listed by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. But here’s another definition: “in effect; virtually.” And there’s a nice little note indicating that some people frequently criticize definition number two as a misuse of the word because it seems the opposite of sense number one—with good reason, I say, because it is.

Is something literal when it is perfectly accurate or when it’s only seemingly accurate? Is it actually or virtually true? Seems like it can’t be both. Which makes me think of how we might say something is way cool or totally hot—and don’t get me started on expressions like “drawing the blinds” or words like bimonthly (which can mean either twice a month or every two months . . .).

If you ask me, this is yet another word that has been so long misused in common practice that it’s become accepted, much like the now-accepted word ain’t instead of aren’t or  isn’t. It’s true that English is a constantly evolving language, but this word, in my opinion, is one that is literally better left alone.

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  1. I would have thought that the opposite of “literal” in the “free from exaggeration” sense (theonly sense I recognize) is maybe “figuratively”.

  2. Timely article. Just yesterday I mentioned on FB that the word ‘irregardless’ was trending on twitter and wondered if using a word enough makes it a real word. The discussion extended into other misused words such as literally. Lots of ideas on it including a link to this article Personally, I take the word as meaning ‘completely true and accurate’. Then again maybe I’m just old fashioned.

  3. Language changes and usually it changes from ignorance–as in bimonthly used for semimonthly–but we adapt. Yet when we see it change from misuse, “literally” in front of our own eyes, it’s hard to accept. I’m still tempted to throw my Kindle when an author describes a man’s shirt as button-down when he/she clearly means button-front. But I’m learning to temper my reaction to a simple highlight and note: “ick.”

  4. The kind of misuse you describe is usually classed under hyperbole. Both the person saying it and the person hearing it know that it isn’t literally true, but using that word pushes the meaning out that bit more into exaggeration for effect. It is a perfectly legitimate use of the language as long as it’s intentional.


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