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.

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

  • 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…. ;[

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!”

  • 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? 😉 🙂

  • 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??)

  • Tengku Shahrizan


    “Literally”!!!! teehee….

  • addie

    @Tengku Shahrizan
    I sound riled?

  • Tengku Shahrizan


    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

    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?

  • addie

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

  • 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…….

  • 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.

  • 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!

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