Tag Archive - literal vs. literally

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.