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“Literally” is one of the many words in English that can have different meanings depending on how, when, and where they are used. In everyday, spoken English, it can have two meanings. In formal and academic English, it has only one, and it means the opposite of what many people mean in everyday language.
Confusing? Yes, it can be. Let’s clear things up.
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Meanings of Literally and Figuratively
In Formal English
In formal and academic English, the literal meaning of a word is its true or usual meaning. For example, if you say, “People were crushed,”
- literally, you are saying that something very heavy fell on some poor people, who were physically destroyed;
- figuratively, you are saying that something terrible must have happened that shattered the people’s hopes and dreams.
In Everyday, Spoken English
You may have heard people say, “I literally died laughing!” Well, if they literally died laughing, they would not be telling the story. What do they really mean by “literally,” then?
Here’s where it can get confusing because, in spoken English, someone might be using “literally” with opposite meanings.
- Literally means literally, that is, something really is or has actually happened as described.
- Literally has a figurative or metaphorical meaning. In this sense, it is used as an intensifier (i.e., a word used for emphasis).
Examples of “literally” as an intensifier
In the following statements, you would be hard pressed to interpret “literally” literally rather than as really, actually, or absolutely.
- I was so embarrassed I literally wanted to die.
- He was literally a monster.
- I was literally scared to death.
- He literally exploded with rage.
- He literally disappeared off the face of the Earth after we broke up.
- She has literally told you a million times not to do that.
- I was so scared my heart literally stopped.
- She literally glowed with happiness.
- That country was so rich money literally flowed in the street.
These sentences could be rephrased to remove “literally as an intensifier,” which can be frowned upon; however, in some cases, you might lose the essence (or flavor) of the original statement. In spoken language, sometimes the message trumps any grammar and style considerations. Ain’t that right?
Can “Literally” Replace “Figuratively” in Formal Writing?
No. Using “literally” as an intensifier is inappropriate in formal, academic writing.
Literally can only be used in formal or academic writing non‑metaphorically to mean “in the strict sense,” “word for word,” or “in effect, virtually.” It is the opposite of “figuratively” or “metaphorically.”
Formal writing tends to have a neutral, objective tone, so you should stay away from overly emphatic statements. When would you ever want to write, “A recent study literally dove headfirst into the issue,” anyway? (In academic writing, literally never.)
In addition, ideas expressed in formal writing must be straightforward and unambiguous. Your readers should not have to figure out whether you are using “literally” to mean literally or as an intensifier.
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