Whenever I see someone corrects another person on their use of "literally", it often seems to me like the corrector did not realize the sentence was supposed to be a hyperbole, and in fact depends on the correct usage of the word "literally" (to mean "actually") in order to be a hyperbole. For example:

"It is so amazing it will literally make your head explode".

Sure, nobody's head is going to "literally" explode from the sheer awesomeness of whatever "it" is, but isn't that exactly the point? If heads do not explode from something being awesome, then something would have to be extremely awesome in order to actually explode someone's head. This sentence basically says: "The intensity of how amazing this thing is is so great, that your head will actually explode from it."

This seems semantically correct to me, but people seem to criticize this use of "literally", as if it actually isn't semantically correct. Why is that?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Edwin Ashworth, tchrist, RegDwigнt Jul 13 '14 at 13:47

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  • Possible duplicate of “Literally” and “Decimate” misuse. – Brian Donovan Jul 12 '14 at 20:18
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    It's not a synonym for anything. It overlaps with actually, but it's not synonymous with it. There are no exact synonyms; if two words became freely substitutible for one another in any environment at all, one of them would become the dominant and the other would either develop a specialized meaning or disappear altogether. This has happened many millions of times before. – John Lawler Jul 12 '14 at 20:18
  • I'm not sure which question you're asking - the one in your question title doesn't clearly seem to be the same as the one in your final paragraph. – Matt Gutting Jul 12 '14 at 20:19
  • @MattGutting Edited question title. – EpsilonVector Jul 12 '14 at 21:09
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    I don't understand where you're coming from at all here. Your example sentence does not depend on any meaning of the word literally to be hyperbole: it is hyperbole even if you remove the word altogether. The point of literally is to make clear that it is not hyperbole, but an exact description of fact. That's what makes it such a dreadful candidate for hyperbole marking. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 13 '14 at 11:52

This is my take:

In language, there is hyperbole and there is error. They are not the same.

It is so amazing it will make your head explode. - hyperbole
It is so amazing it will literally make your head explode. - error

The first is clearly hyperbole. Nothing is so amazing that it will make your head explode. The second is error. It is a contradiction in terms. It is self-defeating as an intensifier. Consider:

It is so amazing it will, in an actual or true sense, as opposed to an imaginary or figurative sense, make your head explode.
It is so amazing it will not make your head explode.

Does that sound strange, or confusing, or convincing?

Intensifiers are fine, even in hyperbole.

It is so amazing it will freaking totally make your head explode. - intensified hyperbole

Literally just isn't a great intensifier. Even though its use in this way has made it into a couple of dictionaries (with a caveat).

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    " 'Literally' just isn't a great intensifier." What a good way to put it. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 13 '14 at 15:34
  • I think it's important to remember that unless you are talking about words exactly matching other words, then it's a metaphorical use of the word "literally". The word 'literally' doesn't literally mean 'literally'—it only means 'literally' metaphorically. – nohat Jul 14 '14 at 22:31
  • @nohat - The word truly doesn't truly mean truly, it only means "truly" metaphorically? Sounds like so much nonsense. – anongoodnurse Jul 14 '14 at 23:57
  • @medica it's the same kind of nonsense as asserting that using 'literally' hyperbolically is "error"—the kind of nonsense you get when you buy into the Etymological Fallacy. – nohat Jul 15 '14 at 16:04
  • I tend hear literally used in this way as ironic, so I'm not sure its literally an error. – joshua.thomas.bird Apr 25 '18 at 15:33

One should not use "literally" when the situation being described is (1) quite easily believable without such use, or (2) quite obviously a figure of speech. Many people use the word to add a beat or two to their spoken sentences, as they use "uh" or "like."

  • That's for sure! – Wayfaring Stranger Jul 12 '14 at 22:25
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    That's your viewpoint (and I'd certainly not use the literally = well (informal/slang intensifier: it will well make your head explode) sense myself. But others have different views on the issue, and do use the word that way. Can you do better than just say 'Don't'? – Edwin Ashworth Jul 12 '14 at 23:14
  • @Edwin Ashworth \\ I fear that I can do no more than to point out that, to me, the adverb "literally" implies that the situation being retailed, believe it or not, happened exactly as described. For it to be used in a less stringent sense is to me an unwarranted relaxation in the standards for my beloved English tongue. – Senex Ægypti Parvi Jul 14 '14 at 12:49
  • Do you still use 'thou' and 'ye' to provide the useful distinction between numbers addressed? 'One should not use 'you' as this is an unwarranted ...' says 12th Century standard-bearer.' I think medica's way of putting it is far better than 'One should not ...': 'Literally just isn't a great intensifier. Even though its use in this way has made it into a couple of dictionaries (with a caveat).' – Edwin Ashworth Jul 14 '14 at 20:03
  • @Edwin Ashworth \\ I do not, but then I never did. Try as thou mayest, thou shalt not me convince that every widely used innovation in my beloved English tongue achieveth the very goal of a tongue, be it written or spoken, which is to set forth and to clarify that which the mind conceiveth. The wholesale use of "literally" with no regard to the significance of the word clarifieth not! It is the practice of the sluggard, and it befoggeth. In modern parlance, don't get me started about "literally." – Senex Ægypti Parvi Jul 15 '14 at 10:33

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