Why “Literally” Normally Means “Not Literally”

Not LiterallyIf there is one “misuse” of a word that is likely to make a grammar pedant go crazy, it is the use of “literally” to mean “not literally”: figuratively or metaphorically. But like with most things about pedants, they are wrong. For the millionth time, grammar is a way to understand how language works. It is not a way of constraining it. Grammar snobs are ridiculous in the same way that physicists would be who complain that relativistic mechanics doesn’t act the way that Newton’s theory does. But grammar snobs can get away with this because most people don’t understand that grammar is a model and not a definition.

But if you were to click over to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and look at the entry for “literally,” you would notice something interesting. The first definition of the word is, “in a literal sense or manner: actually.” But the second definition of the word is, “in effect: virtually.” Now I should be clear: I try very hard to never use “literally” in the second sense. I like words to be clean. And I definitely don’t like to get into arguments (or cabs, elevators, or even really city blocks) with grammar pedants. They’re just exhausting.

There is something weird about the word “literally,” though. It’s kind of useless. Is it ever necessary to say, “He was standing literally in front of me?” About the only time the word is useful is as in, “He took my exaggeration literally.” And it just isn’t used that way very much. So there’s another reason not to use word. It is very rarely necessary. It just stands in the way of communicating what you want to say. But there is a reason that people use the word so much, and it isn’t unjustified.

“Literally” is mostly used as an intensifier: a word meant to add force to whatever is near it. So just as someone might say, “He was really big,” they might also say, “He was literally a giant.” Used in this way, those who “misuse” the word are actually right. Because if the man was André the Giant, it would be redundant to say that he was literally a giant; he was just a giant — it’s in the name. It’s little wrinkles like this that the grammar snobs almost never think about. But I don’t suppose it greatly matters.

But this explains why it is that the second definition of “literally” is the more common one. It isn’t a very useful word in its “correct” form. People love intensifiers — especially in spoken form. Note the extreme popularity of “fucking” used in this context. In fact, with minor syntactical changes, it can generally be used to replace “literally” in a sentence when it is used this way. But what the grammar pedants need to understand is that most of the time when they use literally “correctly” they are being redundant. And that is an even bigger sin than using literally in a way that literally everyone understands.

4 thoughts on “Why “Literally” Normally Means “Not Literally”

  1. Oh, dear. This conflicts me. I am decidedly not a grammar pendant; the whole subject bores me and always has. Grammar just a tool. I don’t understand why anyone would devote excessive attention to it. But I do cringe when I hear “literally” being used as an intensifier. I’m weirdly protective of the word. Maybe I have control issues, but I feel like we can’t go flinging “literally” around cavalierly. It is a noble word, (although I take your point that it is a fairly useless one.) But it should be given it’s dignity all the same! I feel like using it as an intensifier is confusing and slightly abusive. I’m not comfortable with that; it just feels too chaotic. I don’t why with this one word in particular I am all rigid and no-fun-pants, but I feel like “literally” is a fragile word, easily prone to breaking, and that it needs to be properly cared for. Sure, do whatever you want with the heartier words; your more resilient “correctly’s” and “very’s” and “really’s”. “Literally” should be left to it’s first meaning. Just because people like using it an intensifier, doesn’t mean it should be used as an intensifier. I know it’s tempting. But that doesn’t make it right.

    • I pretty much agree with you. But I also think that people must stop using “literally” redundantly. It’s interesting that people are using it as an intensifier, given that we are flooded with intensifiers. But this is partly because for most people, language is about emotion. They really really literally gosh darned very much so want you to know that they feel strongly about “it.”

      What I find myself struggling with is “beg the question.” I don’t want to be a pedant about it. But every time I see it is used as “begging you to ask the question,” I bristle. There is nothing wrong with that. That is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of those words. And I even want to use the clause “incorrectly” just to piss people off. But I do like the purity of its original meaning.

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