Do You Know What I Mean?

“I literally can’t even.” – Me, anytime someone else misuses literally.

And then I hate myself so much.

Here’s the thing about literally: It began with one—very literal—definition:

in a literal manner or sense; exactly

Whatever follows literally is not open for interpretation. It is exactly as you say it is.

Appallingly, that definition is now essentially worthless.

If literally can mean anything, no word is safe.

In fact, it’s been thrown around in so many incorrect instances, the actual dictionary now lists it as an adverb to be used for emphasis.

Have you ever seen a more hollow definition?

To clear the air, I’d like to call out the two instances in which ‘literally’ works just fine—one perfectly acceptable, the other begrudgingly acknowledged—and a third that does nothing but make you sound dumb.

1. Literally as it was meant to be used: when you’re saying something pretty unbelievable, but swear it’s the real deal

My last phone was practically indestructible. It literally fell three stories without so much as a scratch.

There is no room for interpretation there. The phone fell a full three stories. End of discussion.

This is where I pause to ask WHY RUIN THE PURITY OF THIS TERM?

I blame you.


2. Literally in deliberately non-literal contexts: when what you’re saying is so outrageous there is no way in hell you’re referring to the original definition

We literally drove through a hurricane to get to the wedding.

Seeing as we’re in Nebraska, I feel safe assuming it was not a literal hurricane, but rather a heckuva lot of rain.

Even on the East Coast, saying you drove through 90 mph winds would raise quite a few eyebrows.

That said, thanks to your use of literally, I have no trouble picturing the torrential downpour you encountered.

Your goal of emphasizing the inclement weather has been accomplished!

(It’s worth noting that this use could easily be replaced with figuratively and be 100% correct/not cause me heart problems.)

Now let’s talk about when it’s not emphasizing ANYTHING AT ALL.

I literally couldn’t believe my eyes.

This is something that either is or is not.

It cannot be emphasized.

It’s always going be literal.

Do not use literally when you have no choice but to be literal.

I’m serious. Stop.

Ya know what, maybe just quit literally cold turkey and see what happens?

Let’s try getting those other definitions removed from the dictionary and save the most literal term in the English language from a life of contradiction.



Title Credit: Lee Michaels

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