The Negative Canon: Literally

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

It hardly seems necessary to comment further on literally, but I do so for the sake of completeness. It’s been covered by CNN, the  Daily Mail and The Guardian, Ben Zimmer on Language Log, John McIntyre in the Baltimore Sun and by various other blogs including, YouGov, The Web of Language, The Drum and The Hot Word.

All this comment arose when a few months ago someone discovered that definition 1c of literally in the online OED was:

colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

That had actually been in the OED for nearly two years, and is only slightly different from definition 1b which was already in the 1989 revision as definition 3b:

Used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense, usu. to add emphasis.

Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.

As an example of how the word is ‘improperly used’, the note draws attention to a citation which read:

For the last four years . . . I literally coined money.

The interesting thing about that is that it dates not from the wicked modern age, but from 1863. Any who thought it might have been otherwise are prone not only to the Etymological Fallacy, but also to the Recency Illusion. More than 150 years before that, Alexander Pope had written this, which appears in support of the current definition 1b :

Every day with me is litterally another yesterday for it is exactly the same.

The earliest citation of all in the current revision is this from 1769:

He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.

In ‘Mind The Gaffe’, R L Trask, like many others, takes no notice of this long-established use, claiming that:

Something which is literally true is true in fact: you can only write ‘She was literally foaming at the mouth’ if there was indeed foam coming out of her mouth.

Neither Peter Harvey in ‘A Guide to English Usage’, nor Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to English Usage’ covers the point, but Pam Peters is rather nearer the mark than Trask when she writes in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

In grammatical terms, it’s an intensifier or emphasizer like “really” – whose use as such is registered in the dictionaries.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ takes a similar line, but with a sensible reservation:

Now a word about the critics. The chief assertions they make are that the hyperbolic use of literally is a misuse of the word or a mistake for figuratively. As we have seen, it is neither; it is an extension of intensive use from words and phrases of literal meaning to metaphorical ones . . .

If the hyperbolic use of literally is neither a misuse nor a mistake for some other word, what is it? The point to be made here is that it is hyperbolic, and hyperbole requires careful handling.

Even if it does not always receive careful handing, ‘it seems odd,’ as Pam Peters writes ‘to censure the word on the basis of its less responsible users.’

Ben Zimmer commented back in 2008 on the ‘Visual Thesaurus’ blog:

Like many usage bugaboos, it gets a bad rap while other similar perpetrators get off scot-free.

Later in his post, he asks why we don’t hold other intensifiers such as really, truly, absolutely, and positively to the same standard as literally. ‘Is “really bored to death”, he asks, ‘only acceptable when boredom is indeed fatal, or “truly angelical” when actual angels are being described?’ Would Trask have said that you can only write She was really foaming at the mouth when foam was really coming out of her mouth? I suspect not.

Literally, then, gives us a good example of the way in which words are selected from the Negative Pool to form the Negative Canon. Other adverbs which can be used hyperbolically, but without censure, are completely, utterly, totally, and even very. Hyperbole is widely understood and accepted as a figurative use of the language, and it’s all perfectly normal. You don’t have to use literally this way if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to like it. What you cannot do is deny that it is part of the language and that others use it in this way for a particular communicative purpose. Whether or not it is effective can be determined only by the context.



Filed under The Negative Canon

6 responses to “The Negative Canon: Literally

  1. Ah, yes. Much like poor sentence-modifying “hopefully”, which is singled out when others are ignored.


  2. Yes, it that’s phenomenon that I’m trying to explore in this series of posts. Unfortunately, none of those who object to sentence adverb ‘hopefully’, singular ‘they’, figurative ‘literally’ and so on seem willing to present their arguments here.


  3. Indeed, why should “literally” be the only word in the language that is not permitted to have a metaphorical sense? Every other word from “cat” to “stegosaurus” can, after all.


    • In the post I referred to, Ben Zimmer suggests that ‘literally’ gets singled out for special criticism because:

      ‘. . . we all learn in school the difference between “literal” and “figurative” meaning. So it grates on the ear when a figurative turn of speech is given the “literal” treatment. We’re not so attuned to the mismatch of other “real and true” adverbs getting used for purposes of hyperbole, a figure of speech that sets up scenarios that are neither real nor true.’

      I think there’s something in that.


  4. Personally I think ‘literally’ is the perfect intensifier for hyperbolic statements – how else to make something impossible stronger than by declaring its absolute truth.

    With regard to your list, Tom Chivers at the Telegraph beats the Guardian hollow when it comes to language. There was also a good piece at Slate by Jesse Sheidlower, and an article by linguist Dominik Lukeš at Metaphor Hacker, where he goes through the Time Magazine Corpus, showing that this use as an intensifier is nothing new – ‘This is almost literally a scheme for robbing Peter to pay Paul.’ (Time 1925).


  5. Thank you for those additional references, Will. They’re all good, and I encourage the doubters to read them.


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