We all know that literally is being overused currently. I want to know if literally should only be used in contrast to situations which are normally figurative in common usage. For example:

It literally took him an hour to get here. (not a figurative expression)

I am literally starving to death. (Figurative expression made literal because the person is actually starving to death.)

Literally is used for the latter example, correct?

  • 1
    The problem with this question is that it relies on the distinction between "literal language" and "figurative language", and the flaw in that is that it is questionable whether there even is such a thing as literal language. And because of that, there is almost no circumstance, in language alone where "literally" could not be justifiably used (because of some larger non-language context). Mar 20, 2014 at 14:14
  • Are you suggesting that there is no distinction between the literal sense and the figurative sense?
    – user69498
    Mar 20, 2014 at 20:13
  • Perhaps of interest... salon.com/2013/08/22/…
    – tobyink
    Mar 20, 2014 at 22:41
  • No, I am saying that for all practical purposes, there is no such thing as literal "language". That is, words and phrases that can have only one meaning, and thus do not have to be interpreted "in context". The problem is that virtually all words and phrases can be put into a context that makes them figurative rather than literal. I.E., all words and phrases can be used figuratively. So, "It took him an hour to get there." may not mean that it took a literal 60 minutes to get there, depending on the context and circumstances (which may include more than just language). Mar 20, 2014 at 22:46
  • In short, intra-sentence language alone cannot definitively establish a literal sense or use of words. That's why "literally" can be used almost anywhere. Ironically, it's also why "literally" doesn't always mean "literal", because we started to use in figuratively. So even "literally" isn't language sufficient enough to establish the literal sense in all circumstances. Mar 20, 2014 at 22:55

2 Answers 2


Hmm. I think 'literally' could be used when the listener might otherwise think you are exaggerating, even if not employing a figure of speech.

I literally spent hours stuck in traffic this morning.

i.e actual hours, not rhetorical 'hours'.


You can say you are literally starving to death if you have not eaten for a week or so.

I personally use literally to emphasize a fact. In my opinion It actually took him an hour is less strong as It literally took him an hour - can you believe it!?

Have a click through to this cartoon - it should literally be burned into your mind :)

  • So, literally doesn't necessarily have to oppose a figure of speech? It can be used interchangeably with the same exact meaning as "actually"?
    – user69498
    Mar 20, 2014 at 8:48

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