Grammar 101: Using Literally for Emphasis

I was chatting with Tyler Cruz the other day and we agreed that when you’re engaged in a casual conversation with friends online that you don’t have to worry about perfect spelling and syntax. The odd typo can be easily overlooked.

However, when you take any of these conversations into the public realm, via a blog or Twitter perhaps, that you should recognize the importance of good grammar and compose yourself accordingly. Think before you type or speak.

Continuing along this line of thought, Tyler brought up a pet peeve of his. He’s been noticing this more and more, particularly from CNN news anchors, and it’s really starting to get on his nerves. It’s when people use the term “literally” inappropriately. The standard definition for “literally” is to say that something is in a literal sense, word for word, and not an idiom or metaphor. Here’s an example:

“My basement got flooded and the plumber was literally knee-deep in water.”

Using “literally” in this way is correct, because the plumber was truthfully sludging through a small pond in the person’s basement. If “literally” were taken out of the sentence, some people may think that the “knee-deep” part of the sentence was an exaggeration.

However, some people use “literally” in a sentence as a generic way to intensify or to downplay some aspect or expression. This is particularly problematic when the clause being intensified is not literally true.

“I didn’t eat breakfast and I’m literally starving right now.”

Somehow, I don’t think anyone working as a CNN news anchor is starving, so this sentence is far from being completely truthful. The speaker is not literally starving; he or she is hungry. After running a marathon, a runner may say that he is “literally” exhausted, but that’s not completely correct either. It would be much better to replace “literally” with “very” or some other term for emphasis.

Using “literally” in this fashion is ultimately a matter of personal preference and writing style, not unlike how some writers choose to approach split infinitives and parallel structure. If you were to look up “literally” in a dictionary, it would probably tell you that using it (colloquially) as a generic intensifier is correct. I disagree.

What do you think? Do you find yourself using “literally” when you don’t really mean to express its literal meaning?