About a month ago, XKCD posted this comic:
And I laughed! And I totally agreed! …Sort of.
So here’s the thing. The figurative use of literally—when people use it as an intensifier but don’t mean that something happened exactly as they’re describing it—does not make one whit of real difference to the world, just as this comic points out. No one is ever going to think you mean it literally when you say, for example, “he literally blew his top.” There aren’t that many situations where whatever you’re saying could be meant figuratively or literally and lead to confusion. And even when it does happen, well, so what? It happens with a million other English words that have more than one meaning. We’ve all survived this long with a couple dozen meanings for set, so we’ll soldier on even if there’s one more meaning for literally.
But at the same time, I think it’s useful to reserve literally for when you mean something is 100% actually true. It might not be necessary, but it’s useful. Earlier this week I ran into this real-life use at right, in a front-page tease for Slate’s Dear Prudence column. If you read the column, the letter writer says, “Once or twice a week [my girlfriend will] retreat to the bathroom and take a ‘shower’ for an hour or two. Like literally 120 minutes.”
Cases like this are when you start to wish that the older meaning of literally had not been muddled by the newer usage. The thing being describe is extreme enough that it could be mild hyperbole, or it could be totally real (if wacky). In this case, it’s totally real, which both the letter writer and whoever wrote the tease signified to the reader by not just adding literally, but also by repeating or restating the information in question. If it weren’t acceptable to use literally as an intensifier, they could each simply add literally to the sentence and you’d know exactly what they meant without their restating it.
This repeating method certainly works, the same way saying, “No, she like-likes him!” works—it’s clear, but clunky. But then again, this isn’t exactly a huge burden to impose on the language. So while I’d prefer to restrict literally to non-figurative uses, I am most definitely never going to correct anyone in conversation or even causal writing. Because seriously, that is duuuuuuuuumb.
But there’s a difference between me and the guy who writes XKCD. When the people who write the rulebooks are trying to determine whether this usage has become acceptable in all registers of writing, they certainly consider things like webcomics and self-published work, but they put a lot of weight on edited writing, and I’m an editor. So if I decide to let that go in articles I edit, I’m hastening the arrival of that day in the third panel—that’s exactly the same except maybe people say literally slightly more often.
OK, big whoop, I admit it. One more useful distinction lost, but no real harm done. I guess I’m just kind of hoping it’s fad, and if I refuse to accept it long enough it’ll go away. But it’s already in Webster’s, so I think I’m only fooling myself.
Well, I’ll be clinging to a single-definition literally in print for a bit longer, but that doesn’t mean you should go around correcting your friends in the meantime. They’ll think you’re the biggest jerk in the world. Literally.