I'm sensitive to the fact that in light of recent events, the example discussed in this question may be unsettling to some. For that, I apologize, but I cannot think of an effective alternative.

In a Modern Marvels documentary on The History Channel, the narrator says, "[...] bombs have evolved into devices that can literally blow mankind off the face of the earth."

It's difficult to tell whether "literally" is appropriate in this instance. On one hand, the narrator likely uses the word literally to emphasize that although it may have been common for many years to talk about bombs as being powerful enough to blow up the world, in the modern age of weaponized hydrogen fusion it really is possible to eradicate all of mankind. On the other hand, bombs don't blow people "off" the planet, they merely destroy them and leave their scattered remains.

With that in mind, my general question is this: when using the word literally, is it important that every word or phrase be meant to take on its most technically literal interpretation? Or is it enough that there exist two, reasonable, alternative interpretations of the sentence, one of which is a more literal rendering, and that the more literal of the two is intended?


Good question. I believe most people probably wouldn't even notice this weak use of literally, so you would be safe in casual writing; but many purists will probably consider it infelicitous, a stylistic mistake—at least in formal or literary writing.


The use of literally as a emphasizer is something I find repellent. This is one of those cases in which the alteration of the original, intended, "literal" (to make a point) meaning is causing something to be lost in the language. It hampers our ability to communicate effectively and unambiguously. It even impedes the creative use of language; when we lose meaning, our powers of expression are diminished.

Recently I saw a T-shirt that reflects my feeling on the matter. It says: "Misuse of "literally" figuratively drives me insane!"

  • This doesn’t address the question. – Jon Purdy Apr 19 '13 at 8:42
  • @JonPurdy Well, I have to say it does indeed exactly address the question. The question has to do with whether there is an acceptable use of "literal" which doesn't really mean "literal," but which in fact is a casual, sloppy way of hyperbolizing what you are saying. And I'm saying that this is happening, yes, but I find it disagreeable, and destructive to effective use of the language. How does that not address the question? – John M. Landsberg Apr 19 '13 at 8:48
  • @JonPurdy And if you want me to add more specificity to addressing the question, let me say: How is anything supposed to be more or less literal? Literality to me is a binary function. Something is either literally the case or it isn't. The point of "literal" is to make clear that what one is saying is actually, not figuratively, true. Show me how you can have degrees of that quality. I don't see it. If you accept versions of "literal" that are degraded, you are losing something, and what's more, other words fill that bill already, so altered versions of "literal" are not needed. – John M. Landsberg Apr 19 '13 at 9:00

Unfortunately modern American slang has removed all useful meaning from "literally". It is more often used to mean simply "figuratively" than to mean anything similar to its classic meaning.

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