Q: I’ve been accused of misusing the word literally. Can you explain the correct usage? —M.M.
If you watch the TV show “Parks & Recreation,” you know the running joke that Rob Lowe’s character’s favorite word is literally. He says it constantly—but he rarely uses it correctly. (“Pawnee is literally the greatest town in the country,” he says. “There is literally nothing in this world that you cannot do,” he says.)
The definition of literally is, “in a literal sense; exact.” So if you say something literally happened, by definition you mean it actually happened. [Help spread the word — Click here to Tweet it!]
Of course, when most people say “I literally fell on the floor laughing,” they don’t really mean that. Instead, they’re using hyperbole, or exaggeration, to give emphasis to their point.
There’s a big contemporary argument as to whether or not you can use literally as hyperbole. Sticklers for grammar (and many editors) who don’t believe in using literally when you mean figuratively will call out your grammatical misstep.
But many professional writers have long used literally to emphasize points. For example, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain writes, “Tom was literally rolling in wealth.” It’s clear that Tom wasn’t actually flopping around in a pile of coins. And if Twain can do it, we can too … right?
Maybe. Its usage is evolving. Some major resources, such as Merriam-Webster, now include a second definition: “in effect; virtually.” So if you do use it for exaggeration, you’re no longer incorrect by all accounts. But there will still be folks who will literally wag their fingers at you for using it figuratively.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.