Gramatica: Goddess of Grammar (gramatica) wrote,
Gramatica: Goddess of Grammar

Let's be literal.

Literal. The misuse of 'literal' and 'literally' have bugged me for a long time now, and a recent commercial for Rejuvalife has reminded me to post about it. The commercial in question claims that their product can help you "literally reclaim younger skin." Definitely not the worse use of 'literally' that I've ever seen or heard, but also not correct.

First, let's look at's definition of 'literally':
literally (–adverb)
1. in the literal or strict sense: What does the word mean literally?
2. in a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.
3. actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The city was literally destroyed.
4. in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.
[Origin: 1525–35; literal -ly]
So according to the first three definitions of the word, in order to "literally reclaim younger skin" you'd have to gather up all your dead, sloughed off skin cells and reaffix them to your body with this cosmetic. Ew.

Yes, the fourth definition makes that sentence okay, because it is possible to reclaim younger skin "in effect," but according to the usage note listed with the above definition, 'literally' didn't originate with two opposite definitions, meaning it wasn't always the Janus word (a single word that has opposite meanings; also called autoantonyms, contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, and enantiodromes) it seems to be now:
—Usage note: Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning "in effect, virtually," a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning "actually, without exaggeration": The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense "actually": The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived. Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.
Of course it 'appears in all but the most carefully edited writing!' Most people don't realize that one is an incorrect use of the word, because they've heard it used both ways. I hate how the dictionaries give into the butchering of the English language and add alternate definitions to justify the misuse. How long does a word have to misused before one or more dictionaries will turn that misuse proper? Just because a word is used in a certain way doesn't mean that needs to be an official definition of the word. That just means it's a slang usage. More recent slang usages of words are noted in dictionaries, but because this word was ruined in the early 20th century (according to other sources it happened much earlier than that), people have completely forgotten that it isn't proper. The point that this misuse of 'literally' "neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentence" is meaningless. Obviously it doesn't distort the intended meaning of a sentence. Technically, nothing can distort it, because only the author of the sentence knows the intended meaning. But it does distort the understood meaning, depending on which definition the reader applies. If you ask me, this 'usage note' is poorly written and doesn't make a point.

Though I usually don't like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website, I prefer its definition of 'literally':
Function: adverb
1 : in a literal sense or manner : ACTUALLY <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>
2 : in effect : VIRTUALLY <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice -- Norman Cousins>
usage Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
I think the usage note needs to add that if sense 2 isn't used as a hyperbole, then the usage is incorrect.

Even the definition of the word 'literal' backs up the idea that 'literally' has acquired an incorrect definition:
literal (-adjective)
1. in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.
2. following the words of the original very closely and exactly: a literal translation of Goethe.
3. true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.
4. being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy: the literal extermination of a city.
5. (of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic.
6. of or pertaining to the letters of the alphabet.
7. of the nature of letters.
8. expressed by letters.
9. affecting a letter or letters: a literal error.
10. a typographical error, esp. involving a single letter.
[Origin: 1350-1400; Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin litterālis, of letters, from Latin littera, lītera, letter; see letter]
Where in those 10 definitions of 'literal' do you see anything that will allow the addition of 'ly' to the end of it to so distort the meaning of the word that it means the opposite? Especially when you look at the definition of 'ly':
1. a suffix forming adverbs from adjectives: gladly; gradually; secondly.
2. a suffix meaning "every," attached to certain nouns denoting units of time: hourly; daily.
3. an adjective suffix meaning "-like": saintly; cowardly.
Nope. That suffix doesn't express a reversal of the word's original meaning.

Now let's look at the etymology of the word literal:
literal - 1382, "taking words in their natural meaning" (originally in ref. to Scripture and opposed to mystical or allegorical), from O.Fr. literal, from L.L. lit(t)eralis "of or belonging to letters or writing," from L. lit(t)era "letter." Sense of "verbally exact" is attested from 1599. Literal-minded is attested from 1869. Literally is often used erroneously, even by writers like Dryden and Pope, to indicate "what follows must be taken in the strongest admissible sense" (1687), which is opposite to the word's real meaning.
So if you look at the origins of the word, you see nothing about it meaning 'virtually' or 'very nearly.' It comes from the Latin word for 'letter' and is defined as 'exactly as described' or 'according to the letter.' This is where I believe the misuse began. The use of 'literally' in the sentence "He copied the paragraph literally," is the most perfect use according to the etymology, but it's rarely used this way. When we use the words 'literal' and 'literally' to refer to thoughts or actions—instead of words or individual letters—it is the beginning of the slippery slide into figurative (mis)use.

I can find no information giving a historical need for the misuse of the word 'literally.' The only reason other than possible ignorance of the real definition, is misuse for irony and humor that was misunderstood, distorted, and accepted. For literary examples of abuse, see this column.

Ambrose Bierce included 'literally' in Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, offering the sentence—"His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet."—as suspect. "It is bad enough to exaggerate," he wrote, "but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable." H.W. Fowler complained in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage that, "We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that ... we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate."

If you still don't quite understand the correct vs. incorrect usages of 'literal' and 'literally,' here are some examples:
-He copied the sentence literally.
-That is a literal translation.
-Read that in the literal sense.
-Misspelling a word is a literal error.
-Never say something you don't want taken literally.

-The house literally burned to the ground. (Works if no part of the house was left standing.)
-I literally ran from the car to the store. (If you ran the moment you got out of the car until you reached the door of the store, then this is okay.)

-The house literally burned to the ground. (If some of the house was still in place, like a fireplace or a wall or two, this is incorrect.)
-She was so thirsty she literally drank the lake dry. (That's not possible.)
-He jumped so high he literally touched a star. (Also not possible.)
-When I gave him the bad news he literally blew up in my face. (Although an informal definition of "to blow up" is "to lose one's temper," under the technical definitions, this use conveys an incorrect [and traumatizing] image.)
-The founder literally gave birth to the new fraternity. (Um, woah, wrong and impossible on so many levels. Check this out!)

-The drawing she made was literally perfect. (That's redundant. Something can either be perfect or imperfect. To put literally in front of perfect is unnecessary.)
-My dog was literally half the size of his dog. (Again, it's redundant and unnecessary. It's only there for emphasis, any other words work better in that case.)
-I literally ate the whole hamburger. (Good, because I was worried you ate half and snorted the rest.)

Makes me mourn for the death of our language:
You gotta see it to believe it! Under the heading "Showering down."
To finally wind down this posting, my recommendation for use:

Don't use it. You'll use it wrong. :)

Seriously. Just try to leave 'literally' out. If you can't, I recommend replacing it with a synonym. You'll avoid confusion, if nothing else. (Just don't use 'basically,' 'virtually' or 'actually' please!)

Must see!

Strongly Recommended Additional Reading:
Robert Fulford's column about the word 'literally'

Related Links:
-A blog dedicated to "tracking abuse of the word 'literally.'": Literally, A Web Log
-Article: The Trouble with 'literally.'

As always, I'd love your input, and to see misuses of 'literal' and 'literally' that you come across. I also welcome anything you find that talks about the misuse of these words. Thanks!
Tags: intermediate, literally
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