A subscriber to my monthly ezine Add Power to Your Pen posed this burning question:
“As a word lover, I continue to enjoy your explanations of mistakes I hear every day, often from people who should know better! Would you please explain to your readers the correct use of the word literally? I keep hearing people say things like, ‘When I got the news, I was literally over the moon.’ Really? I thought only Sir Richard Branson had the money to do that!”
After a bit of research, here’s how I responded:
The expert who writes in “Daily Writing Tips” considers “literally” to be a word with a precise meaning that’s getting hi-jacked. “Literally is one of those words like crazy, awesome, and wicked that are overused in inappropriate contexts by speakers unaccustomed to thinking about the meaning of words. Annoying? Yes. Destroying the language? Probably not.”
This expert has also written: “Correctly, ‘literally’ should be used when a turn of phrase usually employed in a metaphorical sense enjoys a rare moment of non-metaphorical applicability: the phrase becomes true in a literal, words-meaning-exactly-what-they-say sense. Now it’s being substituted for ‘very’—e.g., literally furious, literally champing at the bit, literally scared me half to death.”
Here’s how dictionary.com defines lit•er•al•ly (adverb)
- in the literal or strict sense: What does the word mean literally?
- in a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.
- actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The city was literally destroyed.
- in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.
Did you notice how 3 and 4 contradict one another? We haven’t resolved anything!
To summarize, using “literally” as “very” is looked down on by traditionalists. Nevertheless, it shows up in all except the most carefully edited work.
Put me in the camp with the traditionalists who prefer the original “pure” meaning as defined in dictionary.com’s 1, 2, and 3. If you truly care about precision in your writing, stick with us!