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“Literally” and “Decimate” misuse

I have seen a lot of backlash in internet media against people using the word literally to mean something not literal.
Something like "he was literally as big as a house" to mean someone was very big I think this comic sums up the anti literal movement well http://theoatmeal.com/comics/literally

Is this actually grammatically incorrect or can the word "literally" be a hyperbole strengthening a metaphor?


My Webster's defines hyperbole as

exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.

So it would seem that using literally as a hyperbolic expression would be to negate its sense of non-literalness.


Dictionary.com has the following usage note:

Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived.

Despite this, I'm going to continue criticizing this use of the word. It's become trite, overused for emphasis, and waters down the word.


It isn't a grammar issue at all.

The backlash stems from the fact that they are using the word incorrectly. "Literally" should not be used for emphasis. Just because a lot of people make the same mistake doesn't make it correct.

  • 1
    When enough people make the mistake, it becomes correct. Language evolves. Not that I don't agree with you, however… :)
    – ghoppe
    Feb 2 '11 at 16:51
  • 4
    And I think that both of you are using the word mistake incorrectly. It literally means "take by error", and it's a verb, not a noun. @ghoppe.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 2 '11 at 17:03
  • Now I remember why I stopped visiting this site. Thanks. Logging off.
    – JohnFx
    Feb 2 '11 at 17:30
  • 1
    @RegDwight No, that is not correct. One can make a mistake. Mistake also has a noun form. dictionary.reference.com/browse/mistake
    – xdumaine
    Feb 2 '11 at 19:09
  • @roviuser RegDwight was being sarcastic, pointing out the ridiculousness of claiming that a word only has one meaning and any other meaning (even one that appears in dictionaries) must be wrong.
    – nohat
    Feb 2 '11 at 19:20

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