Grammar Hammer: Do You Literally See Red When People Say ‘Literally’?

Water under the bridge. (Literally.)

“Literally” is a word that gets people very upset. Why? When used improperly, the minds of word mavens explode and the grammar gods unleash the seven plagues.

Maybe that’s a dramatic rendition of the truth. Misuse of the word “literally” makes a few of us blow a gasket, bite someone’s head off, get up in arms, fly off the handle, go through the roof, see red or (my personal favorite) throw a wobbly.

You get the idea.

That’s because these phrases are really meant figuratively. Unless you actually unhinged your jaw and ripped someone’s head off with your teeth (and don’t look at me if you can do that), then you’ve never literally “bitten someone’s head off.” Take pity on others and try not to say “I literally bit his head off!” unless, of course, you’re a scary female praying mantis.

But know too that such loathsome misuse of the word “literally” has been around since the 17th century. According to a Slate article, just about everyone from James Joyce to Jane Austen seems to have slipped it into their prose at one time or another. That’s about 400 years of professional and amateur writers flouting the rules.

So the question grammar cognoscenti like us should be asking is: at what point does a colloquialism become accepted as mainstream? If James Joyce, arguably one of the most influential writers in the 20th century, used “literally” to mean “in effect” or “all but,” rather than “in reality” or “to the letter,” isn’t that good enough for you?

Maybe yes and maybe no. If you were to say, “I hate how Bill says ‘literally’ all the time. It really makes me see red!” Do you really see red when Bill uses it? Does your blood pressure rise to a point where the hemoglobin begins to tint your vision? Some English speakers have a special hatred for the word “literally,” but there doesn’t seem to be any particular vendetta against the word “really.”

When someone starts huffing and puffing over your use of the word “literally,” tell them there are at least two meanings of the word, and James Joyce is on your side.

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

Image courtesy of Flickr user SD Dirk.

5 responses to “Grammar Hammer: Do You Literally See Red When People Say ‘Literally’?

  1. Grace, a wonderfully humerous post and certainly now a favourite! Funnily enough, we Brits “see red” when it comes to American spellings of English words such as favourite, colour, labour etc without the “u”! As we do over the grammatical use of “different than” which in UK English is “different from”! Isn’t it funny how our common language has evolved quite different ways? Thanks for a lovely post!

  2. Grace Lavigne

    Thanks so much Zoe! I actually wrote an entry a few months ago on American spellings that drive Brits up the wall. Enjoy! http://blog.prnewswire.com/2012/01/23/grammar-hammer-winnie-the-pooh-explains-britishisms-to-the-yanks

  3. I believe there are two reasons why many grammar nerds like me get annoyed over seeing “literally” misused so badly.

    First, those who treat it as an replacement for “really” are ruining a very useful distinction: “literally” vs. “figuratively”. Those words express something very specific that isn’t easy to express another way. If “literally” keeps being misused, we’ll have to find another, more awkward way to communicate the concept. “In reality” or “to the letter” don’t quite carry the same shade of meaning.

    Second, the English language contains many other intensifiers like “really” which could be used instead of “literally”, such as “badly”, “fervently”, “desperately”, and so on. A person could use many other appropriate words instead of an inappropriate one.

    In any event, my regards on a thoughtful column.

  4. Grace Lavigne

    That is an interesting point, jc24012. I see what you mean about the lack of vocab for describing “not figuratively” and do agree that the world would be a simpler place if non-literal “literally” users quit their madness. I know that personally I never say “literally” to mean “really,” but I think this is a battle we’re not destined to win, unfortunately.

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