Why Grammar Enthusiasts Hate the Word ‘Literally’
There’s nothing wrong with the word ‘literally,’ except for its outrageous overuse these days. (And the fact that most instances are misuses!)
Okay, you certified Grammar Police officers out there: how many of you quietly cringe every time you hear the word literally?
Maybe it’s a force of habit before you even discern how the word is being used. I’ll admit it: sometimes I do.
I don’t hate it as much as a New York bar does. Last year, they actually put up a sign on their door warning patrons that anyone who uses that word would have five minutes to finish their drink and leave. If a patron started a sentence with, “I literally…,” they must leave immediately.
Of course, it was just a joke designed to make a point about how annoying a word it is, but still, it certainly made that point.
It’s not that I hate the word literally. Or even that I literally hate the word.
It’s just that I can’t stand often people use it over the course of a normal day. It’s almost as prevalent in daily dialog as the word like, which is used far too much.
But beyond the frequency, it’s mind-boggling how many people use it incorrectly.
It’s been nearly five years since I’ve written about this problem. The last post that focused on the word’s misuse was titled, “If Something’s ‘Literally’ On Fire, There Must Be Flames.”
That should tell you a lot.
It means the opposite of how most people use it.
Merriam-Webster, the company that knows quite a bit about what words are supposed to mean, explains the primary meaning for the word is “with exact equivalence.”
Unfortunately, many people use literally when they actually mean figuratively, which is the opposite.
One of the example’s Google’s dictionary offers is this:
I was literally blown away by the response I got.
If the person made that statement and it was true, it would mean that a hurricane-force wind would have had to blow them away from where they’re standing.
Because there’s a good chance a person wouldn’t survive such an event, they were only figuratively blown away.
But somehow, that doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.
Their best bet, at that point, would simply be to drop literally altogether:
I was blown away by the response I got.
That accomplishes the use of the idiom without the errant adverb that should never have been there to begin with.
So going forward, if you’re about to utter that particular L-word, please pause for a moment and make sure you really mean it.
If you don’t, do the rest of us a favor and drop it.