Literally the Worst Mistake You Could Ever Make

By Guest Author

If most people’s employment of the word “literally” doesn’t drive you mad, you’re probably guilty of a few misuses yourself.

It’s one of the most common complaints of the grammar-savvy. Responding to our post on “Blackboard Moments” – those usages of speech that provoke the same response as fingernails on a blackboard – Abbie points out one of her least favorite tropes of modern language:

“Literally” replacing the word “very” in a sentence. I know someone who says “literally” several times in a row, when she wants to emphasize how “very” something is. One day I will have to shoot her.

One hopes that Abbie isn’t being literal here. Along with that other frequent offender, “basically,” the word “literally” is often mistakenly employed to provide emphasis for a word or phrase that might otherwise go overlooked: “literally furious,” “literally champing at the bit,” “literally scared me half to death.”

As anyone reading this no doubt knows, correct use of the word “literally” literally looks almost nothing like this. It’s a value-neutral term absent of any inherent emphasis or largesse. Correctly, “literally” should be used when a turn of phrase usually employed in a metaphorical sense enjoys a rare moment of non-metaphorical applicability: the phrase becomes true in a literal, words-meaning-exactly-what-they-say sense.

If we know that “waiting with bated breath,” for instance, originates in Shakespeare’s allusion to someone whose breathing has stopped (or abated) in their anxiety, we might say we were “literally waiting with bated breath” if we had cause to hold our breath for an extended period of time.

With our communications increasingly conceptual and metaphor-laden, more and more terms enjoy frequent non-literal use. In an online environment filled with abstract concepts and non-corporeal action, metaphorical language is particularly prevalent: “rolling out new features,” “clearing my inbox,” “laughing out loud.”

Add to this the blurred boundary between idiom and cliché and you have a language rife with metaphor. Those of us attuned to the true meaning of “literally” may jump at the chance to say something like “I literally jumped at the chance,” but be wary that you’re not falling into the same trap as the misusers: using “literally” to convey emphasis, instead of simply finding a stronger word to make your point.

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45 Responses to “Literally the Worst Mistake You Could Ever Make”

  • ‘nora

    Thanks for this. Next up, could you address the people who insist on writing “baited breath” instead of “bated”? Baited with what? Red wigglers?

  • Rebecca

    I ‘literally’ loved this post! Ha Ha! I believe you can add actually, really, and seriously to the list. I sometimes use the word ‘seriously’ but only here and there.

  • Roberta B.

    Excellent! I know metaphors are a good way to evoke image and emotion, but today’s spoken language uses way too many. Now for an article on the usage, comparison, and blurred boundaries between idioms and cliches. In my early days of tutoring foreign language speaking students, the hardest for them to comprehend were the idioms.

  • Albert Berg

    While hearing people misuse “literally” makes me want to grind my teeth, I wonder how much longer purists like us can hold out? Are we still fighting for the original meanings of “enormity” or “decimate”? If the misuse prevails for too long it can take hold in the public mind and supplant the original meaning entirely. There may not be anything we can do to stop it.

  • John White

    Yep.

    Totally.

  • mrburkemath

    People literally seem to think that it means exaggerated hyperbole or something like that, and not, “No, seriously, I’m not exaggerating, I mean exactly this.”

  • Ted Fischer

    Worst offender … the Allstate commercial which has a woman testify that she “… literally fell out of my chair …” when she received a great car insurance quote. I hope she bought health insurance, too.

    Same commercial: A man is happy that he got the multi vee hi cle discount. Screeech.

  • Dan

    An apostrophe after “peoples” is surely a more heinous mistake…

    😉

  • Susan

    Words change over time; while the use of literally as an emphatic in non-literary references may strike one as gauche, that use isn’t the worst mistake–in my opinion. What grates on me are the legions of people who have no idea of the use of I, me, and myself. It’s as if all they recall of grammar is that “Me and Tommy are going fishing” is wrong, so of course “me” must be wrong in any context. Thus, they substitute “I” or “myself,” (the last when they seek to sound erudite or lofty–politicians commit this sin all the time). I wince each time I hear these errors…and I shudder when I see them in print, which is more and more common, alas.

  • Mortimer

    Just to share a ‘literally’ moment.
    Someone once described a visit to a new restaurant by saying,
    ” The food was literally out of this world.”
    Still wondering what he ate – kryptonite steaks?

  • Peter

    Do you read xkcd? There was a “literally” entry a while back: http://xkcd.com/725/.

    (Be sure to hover your mouse over the picture to read the meta-comment, too)

  • Michael

    It’s like, using ‘like’, like, literally, a hundred times in, like, a row. Like, y’know?

  • K.P.Janardhanan

    I used to use this word “Literally” many a times in the sense that in its word by word meaning it means only this much, but if you are diving deep into it you can interrupt it in a different way. I do not know “Literally speaking” has a different meaning in the literature other than the above. I would like to know more about it, if it has a different meaning than what I have explained above.

    Dear Susan, if you are substituting “I” for “Me”, it will become, “I and Tommy are going for fishing.” But as far my knowledge goes, “I” should put after Tommy, it will become “Tommy and I are going for fishing.” There is an expression in English “Put the donkey behind”, here the donkey is none other than “I”.

  • addie

    K.P.Janardhanan–
    I looked up what you must have meant by, “its word by word meaning it means only this much,” it seems using it that way is just giving in to the way common mis-usage can, eventually change the, “meaning,”
    of a word, but I may have not understood you.

  • Joey

    In the last summer Olympics, my wife and I heard these statements from the commentators:

    — (of a diver): “When he hit the water, he literally fell apart.” (gross!)
    — (of a marathon runner): “When he entered the stadium, his spirits were literally lifted up.” (spooky!)

  • Valerie

    “It’s a value-neutral term absent of any inherent emphasis or largesse.”

    Absent ot any? Not heard that before. Do you mean devoid?

  • Michael

    @Valerie:

    ‘Absent of any’ is a chiefly British term meaning ‘devoid’.

  • Peter

    I don’t think so…it feels like an Americanism to me, and the first few pages of hits on google are all American. Non-US speakers would say “absent any”, not “absent of any”, but the meaning is more “in the absence of” (i.e., a [probably counterfactual] condition) rather than “devoid of”.

  • Michael

    @Peter: You may be right, though this non-US speaker (Australian) says ‘in the absence of any’ with gay abandon, and a darned useful expression it is too. ‘Absent of any’ doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch from that.

    If you’re right, consider the irony: a BrE speaker would (at least traditionally) tend to say ‘out of the window’, whereas your AmE speaker might say ‘out the window’.

    I concur with the conclusions of your ‘Google test’, but then I’m not sure that it *is* the best test.

  • Stan Carey

    “He literally glowed” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

    “And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell” (Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading)

    “The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions” (Louisa May Alcott, Little Women)

    “I literally blazed with wit” (William Makepeace Thackeray, Punch magazine)

    Some of these examples of non-literal “literally” are mentioned in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Similar ones can be found elsewhere. The use of “literally” as an intensifier of figurative statements has, as Jesse Sheidlower put it, a “long and esteemed history in English”.

    In my own speech, I tend to restrict “literally” to its more literal uses. The word has long had other applications, though, which great writers have often seen fit to use. As pet peeves go, this one’s pretty dubious. Not only is it not the worst mistake you could ever make, it’s not a mistake at all.

  • Cecily

    Michael, as a Brit, I don’t recognise “absent of any” as a common British phrase. (As Peter says, we use “in the absence of”.)

    Back on topic, it’s intriguing that people rarely complain about “really” being used as an intensifier, even for things that are not real, whereas using “literally” in a similar way invokes more ire. Nevertheless, I’m not a fan of figurative use of “literally”, but it’s too widespread to ignore, let alone turn the tide. After all, it’s not the only word that is often used to mean the opposite of one of its meanings: think of dust, scan, oversight, moot and cleave.

  • Valerie

    I am British and I have never heard or seen ‘absent of any’ before. Is it a new development? It seems to me have the concepts the wrong way round. I would say

    X is devoid of Y
    or
    Y is absent from X

  • Michael

    @Peter, Valerie & Cecily:

    You’re quite right: Double-checked in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage which notes it as having appeared in US English around the 1940s. I stand corrected. I conflated it with ‘in the absence of any’. (By the way, I’m Australian born and raised, but half-British and half-American parentage, which may explain the confusion!) Doesn’t it make grammatical sense though? We might absent ourselves from a meeting, after all; using ‘absent’ as a verb in similar fashion to ‘absent of any’. Or have I got this wrong too? I am, it has to be said, a bear of precious little brain sometimes.

    Back on the (alleged) topic: So, what happens to ‘literally’ from here? Assuming the ‘misusers’ win the day, does it become, as Cecily says, like ‘really’? Or indeed like ‘pretty’, as in ‘pretty good’ (quite good) or ‘pretty well over’ (nearly over). Both more common in Am. than Brit. English, I grant you, but very common in Aust. Or does this risk losing its original, and really quite useful meaning? Or, will they coexist? Again, as ‘pretty’ retains it earlier use (e.g., ‘pretty dress’), but with its earliest meaning consigned to a single(?) idiom: ‘a pretty penny’, i.e., obtained by cunning or cleverness.

  • Cecily

    Michael, “pretty” to mean “moderately” is common in BrE too, but in my experience it often puzzles Americans. I think that generally AuE is closer to BrE than AmE, isn’t it?

  • Michael

    @Cecily:

    Again, I defer to Peters’ Cambridge Guide: ‘pretty’ to mean ‘moderately’ appears four times as often in BrE as in AmE, apparently.

    Yes, Australian English is generally closer to BrE, but differences abound; both home-grown and borrowed from AmE.

  • Michael

    Apologies, I meant ‘four times as often in AmE as in BrE’. 🙂

  • Jai Gomer

    This is literally my first visit to this site, and the civilised manner in which differences of opinion are explored makes me smile.

  • Cecily

    Thanks for the numbers, Michael – though I confess I am very surprised by them.

  • Michael

    @Cecily: Likewise. To be fair, though, Peters does point out that it’s pretty commonly used in the UK.

  • Chris

    Here’s a sentence from an email I received extolling the virtues of a youth football team:

    “They are literally undefeated this season.”

    Thanks for making it clear that the squad had done better than only kind of, sort of, won all their games. ‘Cause sometimes I get confused about what undefeated means.

  • Monika

    I still learn English, but I have never dealt so much with the word “literally”. I read the topic and the opinions, and now I am uncertain about how to use this word.
    Could anybody explain to me the correct rule, when “literally” should be used? I would be thankful and maybe a bit more precise in grammar from now on 🙂 Thank you in advance!

  • Chris

    This is lame. You can’t change the world’s perception of certain aspects of grammar, as atrocious as it may seem. Has it possibly occurred to you that one may have things higher on their priority list than over-analyzing negligible language deficiencies? My first guess would be that you are the ones who get a strange sort of satisfaction from mocking people who chose a path in life other than that of a language Nazi. You all should get out more. Maybe it is technically wrong, but is it actually that big of a deal? There are greater evils on this planet to which we could devote our efforts. Ever heard of child slavery/pornography? You people remind me of the cop that has more interest in the apprehension pot dealers and users than in that of rapists and murderers. Like I said, lame. Dare I say, as much so as the mentally incompetent YouTube self-proclaimed gangster warriors.

  • Tengku Shahrizan

    I literally cringed when Guiliana Rancic said ( on her reality TV show ) that her mother was going to LITERALLY DIE when she sees her new kitchen…….

  • addie

    @Tengku Shahrizan
    What do you expect from reality shows??
    I apologize, but it seems, you do not have a right to complain.

  • addie

    @Chris
    The grammer itself, being mis-used, is not the issue. For me it is what it seems to represent, a general plummeting of standards, all over. Get me?

  • Tengku Shahrizan

    @Addie..

    Whoa….you must be some unhappy curmudgeon or crone teehee!

    Don’t need to apologize…..I have the right (and so does everyone ) to express his’her opinion on here, be it to support or to oppose the writer’s lamentation.

    My comment supports the writer’s complain and that’s that….nothing more and nothing less….so try not to get so riled up over nothing….

    ….And I’m rather glad that you read this blog as you do “literally” need to “literally” improve your spelling (GRAMMAR isn’t spelled with an E) yourself. And now I shall “literally” wait for the wrath of the wretched coming my way heehee……

  • addie

    @Tengku Shahrizan
    I sound riled?

  • Tengku Shahrizan

    @Addie

    “Literally”!!!! teehee….

  • Keith

    I literally wait with bated breath for someone, ANYone to put to the rest of the world the PROPER use of the words: to, two, and too.

    I, to, am thoroughly disgusted that most people don’t understand how to use this set of words. (and THAT’S the way most people USE it, too!)

    Or my personal favourite: I loved it to. (you loved it to WHAT?!? Death??)

  • jessiethought

    “Thanks for this. Next up, could you address the people who insist on writing “baited breath” instead of “bated”? Baited with what? Red wigglers?”

    Of course red wrigglers, ‘nora. What else?

    @Cecily (and

    I am American–we use “pretty” as “moderately” all the time. This site is more than “pretty good,” eh?

    @Jai Gomer

    “This is literally my first visit to this site, and the civilised manner in which differences of opinion are explored makes me smile.”

    Literally? It is? 😉 🙂

  • karmon

    Finally, I have found the place to vent on all of the above. My pet peeve is misuse of the “I” and “me.” For some reason people seem to think that when in doubt, “I” sounds proper and “me” sounds low life.
    I have heard Rush Limbaugh (who brags that he is always 99% correct) state “So and so” and me went to Vegas.”I t Obama “Michelle and me ate ice cream.” Not to mention news readers, MCs, and other individuals supposed to know this stuff. I read somewhere that language is constantly changing but this is more than I can tolerate!

    Then there is the “Jeopardy!” teen championship in which each teenager asks for a category level as “can I have acne for $600, Alex.”

    I think my favorite book is “Don’t be no Hero!”

  • saminureye

    i misuse words in real life. they just seem to come out and unfortunetly i cannot spit them back in. at least in writing we have an eraser. there is no dallorian car i am still searching.

  • W Jor

    Some newscasters try to seem more intense by inserting the unnecessary word “exactly” when they ask a question i.e. When EXACTLY did you notice the money missing or EXACTLY when did hostilities begin? Most times the answer will be an approximation and they already know that before asking. Katie Couric had it down to an exact science.

  • Tatum

    I, too, have become irritated by the improper use of grammar. I hear it at work every day, including seeing it in memos and e-mails that are written by the managers. Also, I know someone who uses the word “literally” in one sentence after another and it drives me crazy. In fact, it makes me think of that Jenny Craig commercial–or is it Weight Watchers? I can’t remember–featuring Nicole Sullivan, who says that her consultant “literally made all the difference.” That comment bugged me, to be honest.
    Another part of improper use of grammer is the fact that people use the word “at” in the end of their sentences. For example, “Where is it at?” or “This is where we’re at…,” and so forth.
    Terrible.

  • Cynthia Wolf

    Yes, ‘non-metaphorical applicability’!
    One of my room mates just said we, the household, have got to become more diligent about storing leftovers because we are literally throwing away money. I ,of course, took umbrage to this linguistic abuse and explaine lieral v. virtual, to which he countered ‘no…food equals commodity, equals money, therefore food equals money so we are ‘literally’ throwing money away’.
    I adamently contended that it is precisely the use of metaphor that renders ‘literally’ incorrect…!!!! ..*tearing my hair out*…
    We are VIRTUALLY throwing out money when we waste food…
    Then I google the correct use of ‘literal’ and here it is…Non-Metaphorical Applicability.
    Now my room mates are telling me that language is malleable and should (should!?) evolve with cultural application…WTF!? The word means what it means…Literally!!!
    Aarrggghhhh…. ;[

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