‘Literally’ gets on my nerves (metaphorically speaking, of course)

THE WORD ‘LITERALLY’ is literally being overused. I’m not exaggerating!

It is being overused by an ever-growing number of people who have either unconsciously absorbed it into their everyday language or are just completely unaware of what it actually means and when it should be used. I would actually (but not ‘literally’) go so far as to say that it has overtaken the notorious ‘your/you’re’ issue as my biggest grammatical pet hate (of which I have many, by the way). So after having my ears metaphorically (not ‘literally’) tortured with people using this adverb so willy-nilly, I was compelled to write this to get it off my chest (not ‘literally’ though, because it isn’t actually on my chest in the first place).

‘Literally’ means something that is done in a literal manner, i.e. to the letter and exactly as it sounds:

‘A flight from London to Amsterdam literally takes less than an hour.’

‘My newborn son was literally born this morning.’

‘He literally copied out the entire works of Shakespeare.’

These sentences mean exactly what they say. No ambiguity about it. So it’s all fairly straightforward to understand, right?

But the crazy thing is that people have latched onto this poor word to intensify what they want to say, be it true or not. So much so that ‘literally’ has also begun to mean the exact opposite, and it could be argued that its meaning today is more widely used and understood than its proper meaning!  People are so well-acquainted with ‘literally’ meaning ‘metaphorically’ or ‘figuratively’ these days that if you do want to say something literal, then you have to find another way to reassure the listener of this. I find myself really stressing ‘literally’ when I say it, staring at the other person with an ‘I’m really being serious here’ look. I shouldn’t have to do this with a word whose meaning is so clear. This is linguistic lunacy and it drives me insane (not literally, still just about sane here).

To get a better picture, I’ve been kind enough to share below some utterances I’ve heard, merely a snapshot of what people today are saying.

“My house is literally opposite uni.”

The use of ‘literally’ in this statement could be correct, provided that the speaker’s house is indeed directly facing the university. If the house is round the corner and a ten minute walk away from the university, for example, then the use of ‘literally’ is probably an exaggeration and therefore incorrect.

Did you mean “My house is really close to uni?”

“He’s literally just used the last teabag.”

‘Literally’ here is emphasising the ‘just’, and therefore stressing the short time between that last teabag being used and the present. Therefore it is very likely to be correct, providing that ‘he’ used the last teabag very, very recently, i.e. several moments ago. If the teabag was used even at least an hour before, then ‘literally’ is likely an exaggeration and could be considered incorrect.

Hmm. Maybe this is what you meant. Depends on the context!

“Literally all I do is work, sleep, work, sleep.”

It doesn’t take a grammatical genius to figure out that this is complete rubbish. What about breathing, moving your muscles to get in and out of bed, falling asleep, dreaming, waking up, coughing, talking, blinking, eating, sneezing, digesting food, moving your muscles to move other parts of your body, drinking, getting to work, tweeting, pumping blood around your body, getting home from work, going to the toilet, smiling and complaining about all you ever seem to do is work and sleep, too?

Did you mean “It feels as though all I do is work, sleep, work, sleep”?  

“I felt like I was literally on fire.”

‘Literally’ is incorrect here for a number of reasons. Firstly, being ‘on fire’ is hyperbolic language (in other words, exaggerative language) for being ‘hot’, and so the word ‘literally’ can never be paired with this kind of language since they have contrasting effects.  It’s like saying ‘it’s literally raining cats and dogs’ or ‘I’m literally a bull in a china shop’. Secondly, the verb ‘to feel’ does not invite the word ‘literally’ to follow it, since ‘feel’ is a more abstract, personal verb and again, is more related to figurative than literal language. Even then, if the person was indeed combusting (as ‘literally’ implies) they would not have used ‘I felt like I was literally on fire’ but simply ‘I was literally on fire’ and would probably be in hospital nursing very severe burns.

You definitely did mean “I felt as though I was on fire.”

“I’ve literally eaten so much chocolate.”

‘Literally’ here is completely redundant – it adds nothing to the sentence. The speaker clearly wants to emphasise the fact that they’ve eaten vast amounts of chocolate, as I’m sure you understood, but the way to do this is to emphasise the chocolate: ‘Too much chocolate’, ‘lots of chocolate’, ‘sooooo much chocolate’, ‘copious amounts of chocolate’, ‘a cornucopia of chocolate’, ‘my body weight in chocolate’, ‘so much chocolate I feel as though I’m going to be sick’, etc. In fact, “I’ve eaten so much chocolate” is enough to get that idea across anyway. Either way, you should literally go on a diet.

You meant “I’ve eaten so much chocolate”. 

“Literally – we were going like 100mph!”

This could well be true if they were moving at 100mph (in presumably a car), but since the fact that ‘literally’ is sooo overused, it was most likely an exaggeration.

Did you mean “I felt as though we were going 100mph!”?

“I literally shat myself.”

Given that the speaker was declaring this quite openly in a gym, it can be assumed straightaway that she did ‘shit herself’. In British English at least, ‘to shit oneself’ is figurative language for ‘to be scared’ and so ‘literally’ cannot be used to emphasise this, because it implies that it did actually happen.

I sincerely hope you just meant “I shat myself” in the figurative sense.

“I literally died.”

Since the speaker is able to speak this sentence, it can be presumed that they are alive and did not ‘die’, as the ‘literally’ implied. This was likely to be an exaggeration for when she was feeling very ill or laughing very hard, etc. Either way they are still alive, so ‘literally’ is very much WRONG.

Clearly, you meant “I died” in the figurative sense. Or are you a zombie, ghost or vampire, etc.?

Language will inevitably change all the time, of course, and words’ meanings will shift throughout time as they have done in the past – whose idea was it to let ‘wicked’ mean ‘good’, for example? While I don’t have too much of a problem with that, the mutation of ‘literally’ is something we cannot let happen. Think about it: ‘I literally died’ or ‘I’m literally about to explode’ or ‘I’ve literally fallen head over heels in love with you’ all sound utterly ridiculous because they’re not literal in the slightest. This confusion is beginning to tarnish the beauty of the many English figures of speech that we already know aren’t real and don’t need ‘literally’ to emphasise. ‘Literally’ was coined to have one meaning alone, and it expresses that meaning perfectly. That’s why these figures of speech exist, as well as ‘metaphorically’, ‘figuratively’ and even ‘not literally’: to express things that aren’t real and are to be taken with a pinch of salt (not literally, I hasten to add).

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5 thoughts on “‘Literally’ gets on my nerves (metaphorically speaking, of course)

  1. This totally irritates me too. Ditto the similar over- and misuse of “actually”. MOST THINGS ARE ACTUAL. THEY HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE, NOT FAIRY LAND.

    And “lay/ layed/ laying down”. He is LYING DOWN, he is not LAYING DOWN. More and more people are saying that here in Oz – might be an American import.

    And male/female as the noun instead of man/woman.

    I read a lot of police facts sheets in my work. They are so grammatically tortured it’s comical. The police write in this bizarre present/past tense, use bizarrely unnecessary words, and preface almost every verb with the additional verb “proceed”. For example, “Upon police attending the location, the male has proceeded to lay down behind the vehicle”.

    And “presently” for “currently”. Presently means soon.

    I could *literally* go on forever 🙂

  2. YES. Oh my gosh. The erosion of the English language is somewhat heartbreaking. And all of those people getting a semicolon tattoed on their ankle/arm/wrist/head (please tell me that you’ve written a post about this..!)

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