The Grammarphobia Blog

“I literally exploded.”

Q: This is an observation, not a question. I am going mad from the proliferation of misuses of “literal” and “literally.” Quite often the offenders are otherwise well-spoken, articulate journalists, writers, intellectuals, even some of WNYC’s own. Here are the types of misuse I have noticed:

1. The exact opposite of the correct meaning: “I was so angry I literally exploded.”
2. Unnecessary. “Robert Murdoch is literally the man responsible for this transformation of modern media into a corporate enterprise.” (He is the man. “Literally” adds nothing.)
3. Weird: “The novel is literally fiery. It’s title is On Fire.”
4. Questionable: “This journalist/comic book artist literally illustrates the human condition.”
5. Used for emphasis, as some people use very, really, etc. “The movie was literally the best I ever saw.”

A: Great analysis! You’ve done a terrific job of categorizing and deconstructing the various misuses of “literally.” I’ve often harped on this but complaining doesn’t seem to do much good. “Literally” is increasingly being used to mean its opposite: “figuratively.” Go figure!

When I was an editor, I encountered things like “He literally had kittens,” and “She was literally climbing the walls,” and even one about spectators at an Old Settlers celebration who “were literally turned inside out and shot backwards in time.” I wrote about that one in my book Woe Is I.