Grammar Hammer: When Did Literally Stop Being Literal?

Have you ever been so angry that you were literally foaming at the mouth? What if I asked you to tell me about the last time you were trying to figure out a pile of medical bills? Or the last time you tried to have a conversation with customer service at one of your utility providers? Was there foam coming out of your mouth?

When did literally stop meaning just that – literally? CNN posted a story this week about Google, Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries adding a secondary definition to “literally,” with Dictionary.com being a lone holdout in not changing the definition, and even going so far as to add an editor’s note on the modern usage of this word for dramatic effect.

Literally means “exactly, in a strict sense, or to the letter.”  The second definition uses “literally” as an effect “used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express a strong feeling.” If we’re sticking with the true definition of “literally,” then I think it’s safe to say that it is literally one of the most overused words in the English language.

Figuratively means “in a metaphorical sense.” In my customer service example, I was figuratively foaming at the mouth trying to contact the cable company. But no one says that, do they? We have a lot of historical precedence for the use of “literally” that stretches as far back as the 1800s.  There’s a great piece on this subject on Slate.com that takes us through history and how authors such as Jane Austen and Mark Twain used “literally” to add emphasis.

Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t come across this word that often in the news releases that hit my desk every day. But in other writing, literally has become a literal sticking point for many. If I think about what my late grandfather, The Colonel (who taught English at a military school), would advise, he’d probably say, “Granddaughter, your writing should be clear and succinct, and not silly-sounding.” Great advice, Grandpa.

I will have to give kudos to CM Punk for his Grammar Slam on literally vs. figuratively. I know some of my staunch grammarians share in his zeal (and take note, some of the language is NSFW).

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is literally a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

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