There are some words that seem to get people’s backs up a lot more than others. The grammar police are quick to point out the incorrect spelling of “there”, “their”, or “they’re”, or the cursed “your” or “you’re”.

Some more traditionalists might be wound up by the world “impact” used instead of effect or affect. The use of the former is understandable though, as it can be tricky to sometimes work out which affect/effect is right.

One word that seems to set off a lot of alarm bells though is “literally”, when it is used to describe something that isn’t literal. A recent example I saw was someone on LinkedIn complaining about a woman she heard talking on the phone. The example given here was “I literally died laughing”.

It is obvious from context that the woman in this example did not die from laughter, or at all for that matter. She is using the word “literally” to place emphasis and intensity to her statement. Compare the two:

  • “I died laughing at what he said”
  • “I literally died laughing at what he said”

Both get the same message across, but the second adds more intensity to how funny the thing that was said.

Should I Use Figuratively Instead of Literally?

Many who argue against the use of literally often suggest that the person “meant to say figuratively”. In reality, they didn’t mean that at all.

If we take the Oxford definition of figuratively, it is defined as a word that is “used to indicate a departure from a literal use of words; metaphorically”.

So technically, yes, the word figuratively is correct when saying that you died laughing. But no one really thought you died, otherwise how could you tell them that. Making it literally redundant to use the word “figuratively” (see what I did there?).

The Message is What Matters

If that isn’t enough of a reason to convince you, let’s look at the whole point of communicating with someone. You talk, write, read, and listen so that you can communicate with others.

Unless you are of a particular persuasion that prefers to evince your intellectual prowess through prevaricating around your message with a plethora of vocabulary, the aim of your communication is to understand and be understood.

Why Do People Use Literally Wrong Nowadays?

Another common misconception is that the use of literally is a modern phenomenon, often used to demonstrate the inability of certain groups (often young people) to fully grasp the English language.

Well, both of these are wrong.

Firstly, addressing the figurative use of literal demonstrates a lack of intellectual ability: it has been used this way by literary geniuses from Mark Twain to Frances Brooke. A 2013 article by Dennis Baron, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, describes how the word comes from the Latin word “littera”, which means ‘alphabetic letter’. To cut a long story short (check the article for the full details), the alphabet is a metaphor for language, and therefore the letters are a metaphor for knowledge. 

Secondly, if we address the misconception that somehow the figurative use of literally is only common among young people, we can debunk this very easily. The two literary geniuses I listed above (Twain and Brooke)…well, the former died in 1910, and the latter in 1789. In fact, there is recorded evidence of literally being used figuratively since the 17th century.

Can I Use “Literal” Instead of “Figurative”

Yes. Literally is absolutely the right word to use. It has been used by some of the most highly regarded writers in history. It is used to add emphasis and intensity to your sentences and is far more natural than saying “figuratively”.

So go ahead, use it whenever you want. Anyone who calls you out literally doesn’t understand the language.

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