If 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.