Do you want to learn how to use literally? Good, but be warned: it’s tricky. The long-useful adverb (and, more recently, awkward intensifier) has several definitions:
- in the strict (literal) sense: What does “déjà vu” mean literally?
- in a strict (literal) manner; word for word: The beginning language student translated the document literally.
- actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The building was literally destroyed.
- in effect; virtually: The candidate was literally pulverized in the primaries. (Ouch.)
Yes, the word literally can be its own opposite: actually and in effect. It’s this last use that bugs some people, including me. (The third use annoys me, too. It’s unnecessary. Why say The building was literally destroyed when The building was destroyed will do? Doesn’t destroyed say it all?)
How to Use Literally
If you want to use literally without sounding goofy, just remember this: Don’t use it to modify verbs and expressions that can only be done literally. It’s redundant.
Take the sentence You should literally read this post. It’s no good. Why? Because reading a post is an action that can only be done literally. You can’t figuratively read a post. You either read something or you don’t. Now, can you read another person’s emotions? Yes. Can you read the writing on the wall? Yes. (A figurative wall with figurative writing requires figurative reading.)
But books, newspapers, text messages, reports, etc.? They can only be read in the literal sense. So there’s no need to use the word literally.
Winning Is Literally Not Losing
So should you lose sleep over how to use literally? If you’re at a bar with a friend, misusing literally is no big deal. Speech is more casual than writing, and speech between friends is more casual than other kinds of speech.
“I look at a winning streak as not losing—literally.”
—Tiger Woods, professional golfer and master of the obvious
However, if you’re writing a report for work and don’t know how to use literally, you might come off as uninformed or too casual to people who care about these things. Don’t write a sentence like this: The percentage of respondents from inner cities literally increased by 10%. Ugh.
If someone asks you how to use literally, send along this post. Better yet, you can like it or tweet it below. We would appreciate it. Literally.
“literally.” Dictionary.com. Accessed October 22, 2013.