Q&A: Literally, explained.

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we explain “literally”, literally…

Q: I have a friend who literally dies every time a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio. It’s been happening since 1989.
A: Is that so? Lucky you’re on hand to resuscitate them each time. Perhaps a doctor should examine why it keeps happening.
Q: What are you talking about? I’m literally not hearing you.
A: You’re using “literally” all wrong. Like, literally.
Q: Oh. Please explain.
A: “Literally” leads a kind of double life. First as a sedate adverb expressing “word for word” accuracy. It doesn’t exaggerate or leave room for interpretation – it delivers facts. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “in a literal manner, or in the literal sense”.
Q: Examples?
A: “The word ‘maison’ literally translates as ‘house’”. Or, “She literally left him at the altar when she ran out of the church”. Or, “He was literally two questions away from a million dollars”. Or even, “The parachutists literally dropped in for tea”. They are all based in fact and using “literally” is reminding the reader that everything is true, word for word.
Q: And the other half of its double life?
A: This is the informal, controversial, loud shirt-wearing, flamboyant “literally” – used as an intensifier.
Q: I use an intensifier on my skin every night. Made from sea cucumbers, aloe vera and the crushed dreams of youth.
A: This is different. And it has two levels. The first level involves mild uses of the word “literally” to add emphasis to a statement.
Q: Examples?
A: There are literally millions of examples.
Q: Well tell me one then—-oooh, I see what you did there.
A: That’s right. And it’s not technically wrong – there ARE millions of examples. But “literally” is being used purely for dramatic loud-shirt effect here. Other similar indulgences would be “I literally just got here” (if you had actually just arrived). Or “J.K. Rowling is literally my favourite author” (if that person constantly re-reads Harry Potter many times a year). “She was literally screaming with excitement” is another.
Q: So they’re being a bit dramatic, but they’re still technically true?
A: Exactly. And this form of “literally” has actually been used as an intensifier since the 1760s. So it’s nothing new. But it’s once we get to the pointy end of the hyperbole spectrum that things get messy.
Q: Is a hyperbole anything like the Super Bowl?
A: Not unless you’re calling the Super Bowl the greatest sporting event in the universe. A hyperbole [pronounced hi-PER-billy] is an exaggerated statement that is not meant to be taken literally.
Q: Wait, what? That’s the single most ridiculous thing I have ever read.
A: Nice hyperbole. And yes, this appears to completely fly in the face of the original “without exaggeration” definition of “literally”. These are the ones people love to hate. And they’ve become overused in this era of superlatives, “click bait” headlines and dramatic announcements.
Q: So what makes them so different to the other intensifiers?
A: Great question. Let’s take your friend who loves Taylor Swift. To say that she is “literally their favourite singer of all time” is one level. But to say they “literally die every time they hear her” takes it from emphasising the literal to emphasising the figurative.
Q: The figurative?
A: A figurative expression is the complete opposite of literal – departing from reality. Your friend didn’t actually die.
Q: So using “literally” to mean “not literally” is literally a contradiction in terms, yes?
A: Well, yes. It’s like using the word “dark” to mean “light”. If you are “literally dying”, you should call an ambulance. And if you’re “literally bending over backwards to help someone” then you’d better be a gymnast. Otherwise, call that ambulance again.
Q: But it’s used like this A LOT. Surely the language is evolving?
A: Of course. And it is rhetorical enough for people to usually know that it’s not true. But bad blood remains between the purists and those who use “literally” as a figurative hyperbole – so our advice is to shake it off and leave a blank space.
Q: I’m literally lost for words…


Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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