Correctly using the word "literally"
posted to the public
at 2:07 AM on Tuesday Mar 15, 2011
"Literally" is used in speech when a phrase that is normally meant figuratively is instead meant, yes, literally
, i.e. using the primary definitions of the words involved.
Examples of proper uses:
"I literally bought the farm" when discussing your purchase of land you will use to grow produce.
"He literally died laughing" in an obituary about a deceased man's heart failure from excessive exuberance.
"John literally went the whole nine yards" when analyzing a running back's most recent play in American football.
"Literally" is incorrectly and overwhelmingly used by the misinformed as some sort of vague intensifier. For some reason people think that putting "literally" in front of a description or action makes the following word more important or distinguished. This is outside the meaning of the word "literally" and should be considered abusive.
When in doubt, I find it helps to ask yourself this question when considering the word "literally": "What would it mean for me to figuratively
do/feel what I'm saying?" If there is no figurative meaning to your sentence then you should not be calling for a literal interpretation.
Examples of incorrect "intensifiers":
"I literally hate it when people misuse the word 'literally'." No, I just plain hate it, or maybe I really hate it.
"I literally have to agree with this blog." What would it mean to figuratively agree with a blog? Nothing, so "literally" is misused.
The worst abuse is declaring something to be literal when it is really meant figuratively. This screams ignorance (no, it does not literally scream ignorance
) and makes you sound like an idiot to anyone with a decent education.
Examples of the worst abuse:
"The comedian was so funny I literally peed myself." This is wrong unless your pants are soaked with urine because you lost control of your bladder during a comedy show.
"I love that kid. I would kill for him, literally." -- Kristen Stewart re: her New Moon co-star. Scary if she means it.
A lot of lazy/uninformed people will claim that this is all nitpicking and that only losers care about this sort of thing. Somewhat true. It is, however, important in life to communicate clearly, and improperly using words is an easy way for messages to be misunderstood. Imagine someone reporting that a policeman "literally shot first and asked questions later"; did the officer kill an innocent without just cause, or are we falsely suspicious because a witness doesn't know how to properly use the word "literally"? That's an important distinction only possible with correct use of vocabulary and grammar. Get it done.
TLDR: stop abusing the word "literally." Do not use it in place of "really" or "seriously." Make sure you really want your words to be taken using their strict definition and not in a figurative way.
P.S.: this is only a 3/4-serious post.
P.P.S.: inb4 someone makes an intentional ironic misuse of the word "literally."
P.P.P.S: inb4 someone makes an unintentional ironic misuse of the word "literally."
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