Incorrect Usage of Literally Is Wrong—Literally

By April 15, 2010 culture, language No Comments

Humans are funny creatures. (Funny ha-ha and funny peculiar.)

Get us together, and that funny factor increases exponentially. We begin to mirror speech and communication gestures. And we do so without realizing it.

This scares me.

What words and gestures do I mimic without conscious awareness? Not sure I want to know . . .

As a language enthusiast, my brain takes note of spikes in word usage and communication gestures. There are currently two spikes that have caught my attention—and my amusement. This post will focus on the first spike; soon I’ll follow with a separate post detailing the second.

The word usage spike I’ve noticed has been on the rise for some time now. You may already be aware of its increased use and overuse and incorrect use. It’s the word literally. Here’s an interesting article written on the subject many years ago—sadly, I think improper usage has only increased since then!

Webster’s defines literal as: according with the letter of the scriptures; adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression: actual; free from exaggeration or embellishment.

When something is literal, it is exact. In proper form, a speaker would label a scenario as literal to signal it as fact or to stress that an otherwise facetious phrase should, in this context, be taken as truth. An example would be:

He was literally running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Literally signals that a common phrase—running around like a chicken with its head cut off—that is typically used as and known to be hyperbole, is now to be taken as fact in this case. Adding literally tells us this guy must have been dressed up in a beheaded chicken’s costume and was actually running about like mad.

However, if hyperbole was intended—and my guess is in most cases it is—literally should not be included in the statement. We all know that if someone is described as running about like a beheaded chicken they are in fact trying to do too many things at once.

A recent Sears ad correctly—and quite humorously—uses literally:


It makes me happy that language is used in a clever way to make a point. Perhaps this nationwide ad campaign will stir some recognition of how this word has been used improperly.

Although I’m not holding my breath. Literally. (Because then I would grow faint over something so silly as improper word usage.)

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