Language and Culture

How to Use “Literally”

Do you want to learn how to use literally? Even though it’s a black-and-white issue for many word nerds, it can be tricky. The long-useful adverb (and, more recently, awkward intensifier) has several definitions:

  1. in the strict (literal) sense: What does “déjà vu” mean literally?
  2. in a strict (literal) manner; word for word: The beginning language student translated the document literally.
  3. actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The building was literally destroyed.
  4. 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. Doesn’t The building was destroyed say it all?)

How to Use Literally

If you want to use literally without sounding goofy, then 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 blog post. It’s no good.

Why? Because reading a post is an action that you can only do literally. You can’t figuratively read a post. You either read something or you don’t.

It annoys me when people use literally to mean figuratively—but it doesn’t literally get on my nerves.

Now, can you read another person’s emotions? Yes. Can you read the writing on the wall? Yes. (After all, 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.

The History of Literally

We get the word literal from Late Latin (via Middle English). The word litterālis means “of letters.”

From there, we added the suffix -ly (around 1525, no less!) to get the adverb form, as we do with many adjectives.

But here’s where things get interesting. The word literally has been used in a non-literal sense since the late 1600s. (So much for thinking that our ancestors were sticklers for proper usage.)

The fact that this “new” use of the word is so different from its original meaning probably explains why people are up in arms (not literally).

English speakers have used literally to mean figuratively since the late 17th century.

RedLine’s “house style” is clear on how to use literally: it’s fine for meanings 1 and 2 above, but meaning 4 is a no-no. (We look at instances of meaning 3 on a case-by-case basis.)

Of course, we deal in the written word. We don’t go around policing people’s speech. (We want to keep our friends, you know.)

If you maintain your own blog, read about good word choice and then check out our checklist for editing your content.

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 streak as I don’t lose—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.

But 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, then send along this post.

Better yet, you can like it or tweet it. We would appreciate it. Literally.

Online Etymology Dictionary.


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