used to emphasize that something, especially a large number, is actually true

  • The Olympic Games were watched by literally billions of people.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Is it the same meaning if I do not use "literally" in the above sentence?

  • While it's come to be used for emphasis, in the strictest sense literally is not meant to emphasize importance - it's meant to be used in places where hyperbole is common to make it clear that the statement isn't actually hyperbolic. Massive numbers are often used in hyperbole, so actual measurements with massive values are often presented as "literal" values. It's seldom actually necessary, unless the number is so unbelievably large as to be mistaken for a joke.
    – talrnu
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 22:13
  • A direct answer is that all additional words, even if entirely tautological, carry some difference if anything about emphasis or nuance. Is it a big difference? 'Literally', whatever controversies there might be, has a lot of content to it so I think it is a big difference. It makes you think lots of things that aren't thought of if you leave it out.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 21:14

5 Answers 5


From The Oxford Dictionaries Blog: 5 language arguments you can stop having

  1. Literally
    Argument: Isn’t the use of literally when something isn’t actually real or happening incorrect?

For some people, there is nothing worse than the figurative literally. In standard use, literally means ‘in a literal manner or sense’ or ‘exactly’, but its extended use has become very common in the past several decades. In its figurative sense, literally is ‘used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true’. For instance: ‘He was literally dying with laughter’. The subject of the sentence, of course, is not literally dying; the adverb is there in order to emphasize his extreme reaction.

For those plagued by this usage, it might help to point out that literary luminaries such as Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the word in this sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word has been used figuratively since the mid-18th century.

If something was "literally" watched by billions of people, the reporter should also provide data that supports this claim. If the writer is using a hyperbolic expression, then the adverb literally is being used correctly. Regardless, billions of viewers remains a huge number.


It's safe to use literally, even when you're literally exaggerating.

Correction: It is not literally safe to use the term literally. I would advise the OP to avoid using the term in that particular example he cited because it is ambiguous. If literally means "actually", as appears to be the case, some readers will probably object and feel confused as to whether the unspecified number (billions) is an exaggeration or in actual fact, true.

  • 2
    I agree with this response except for the last sentence "It's safe to use literally..." The very first sentence of the quoted section ("For some people, there is nothing worse...") shows that some people see the figurative use of the word "literal" as uneducated. So it's not always safe: It depends on your audience and how their opinion of your speaking/writing ability may affect you. Do you wish to be known as someone who carefully chooses your words? It also depends on the formality of the situation. Also--like any good communication--it's not a good practice when it leads to ambiguity. Commented May 7, 2017 at 19:29
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA The actual O.E.D. says no such thing, and the blog expressly states that it doesn't reflect the opinions of O.U.P. It currently warns that despite being one of the more common uses, some people consider it irregular, and outright declared it improper in the prior 2nd ed. Also, in context, the comedian Mark Twain's use of "literally rolling in wealth" in Tom Sawyer seems to be quite ironic, since some of the wealth constituted worthless things like a key that wouldn't unlock anything, and a dog collar with no dog.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 14:21
  • @Tonepoet It's under c. it says: “colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).” And 1769 ... He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; *it is literally to feed among the lilies.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 14:27

Numbers like millions and billions are often hyperbole, meaning the speaker really has no idea how many, but there were a great many. Literally billions is supposed to mean that the speaker does in fact know how many, and it really was in the billions. So yes, there is an important difference.

  • Have you data proving that the 'emphatic' rather than the original sense of 'literally' is not used to any significant extent with hyperbole? I've just found the worrying 'Seriously, there are literally millions of words that are basically annoying.' in a Google search. Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:47
  • The word literally, in addition to its original, factual sense, has a new sense, recorded in professional dictionaries, meaning figuratively.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:52
  • @EdwinAshworth well, I did say supposed to mean. Also, I seem to be getting slow updates, and hadn't seen most of the activity I now can see.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:54
  • 1
    @PhilSweet That information should be in your answer, not the question. Putting in the question assumes the consequent. Questions can't answer themselves. Only answers can. In general, it's a bad idea to make edits which guess at the intent of the poster, because it risks changing it. I've rolled to back. Please put that material in your answer here.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:56
  • @PhilSweet Your edit introduced he assertion that the literally meant "big and important" instead of "actual numbers". The vey question turns on that exact nuance. You can't change the question to say that. Leaving the original material alone has nothing to do with it. As a reductio as absurdum, it would also be improper to leave he original material alone but append a note saying "the foregoing notwithstanding, what I'm really looking for is a great chicken soup recipe". It is up to answers to make interpretations and conclusions based on those interpretations.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 15:03

There is no real need to use 'literally' if what you are saying is obviously true in a literal sense. Considering your example, since the Olympic games are actually 'literally' watched by millions if not billions of people, you are right -- you don't need to use 'literally'! And as Dan Bron pointed out in comments, billions is probably too big a number, even for the Olympics, so I would advise you to change it to 'millions', or even 'hundreds of millions' as suggested by Mari-Lou A in comments.

The more orthodox usage of 'literally' is to give emphasis that something (that might be literally or figuratively expressed) is actually being used in a literal sense here. Example:

The concert literally brought the roof down (not figuratively but literally: the loud noise literally collapsed the roof!)

She literally kicked him out of the house.

Please note that the less orthodox but quite popular 'alternative use' of 'literally' is paradoxically meant to emphasise and intensify a figurative usage, as in

After the breakup, he was literally swimming in a sea of tears.

The headmaster literally burst with rage after seeing the boys' nasty trick.

IN SHORT, the 'literally' seems unnecessary in this context, though I expect the two sentences will not have the exact same meaning with and without 'literally.'

  • I'm not sure the games were watched by billions of people. Also the "less common", aka figurative sense is now officially recorded in professional dictionaries.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:45
  • @Dan Bron now that I think of it, you have a point: the world population is 7 billion so the Olympics were 'literally' watched probably by millions not billions -- OP should modify the word choice appropriately for perfect accuracy! Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:48
  • That's he problem with this premise of this question, which are only muddied by the current dual meaning of "literally". OP wants to know if the sentence is exactly the same with or without literally. What say you?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:50
  • @Dan Bron I suppose the 'cumulative viewership' which includes all the different times you or I switched on the TV over the 17 days would take the Olympic viewership to nearly a billion, though we must check the official figures. To be 'literally' safe, I have advised the use of 'millions' rather than 'billions'. Still, the 'literally' seems unnecessary in this context, though I agree the two sentences will not have the exact same meaning with and without 'literally.' Commented May 7, 2017 at 15:02
  • That's the answer OP needs and is asking for. It doesn't matter what the new meaning is -- in fact, is avoid speculating about that at all in your answer, because we cannot know whether the quotes' author intended literal in the original sense, and was wrong about hr viewership, or in the figurative sense, and was attempting emphasis -- the only thing that OP asked is if they're the "exact same" with or without literallly, and the answer there is a flat no. Recommend you edit your thoughts in your previous comment into your answer.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 15:08

used to emphasize that something, especially a large number, is actually true

  • The Olympic Games were watched by literally billions of people.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

  • 3
    This is ok as a comment but if you want to post it as an answer, you are required to state which dictionary you used, ideally with a link. Otherwise readers have no way of knowing how credible it is. Also I'm a little doubtful about the quality of this particular dictionary, whatever it is, because lexicographers are very careful in their wording, and would likely avoid saying "a number" is "true". Though telling us which dictionary you used would clear this all up at once.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:21
  • also 'used to emphasise something [even though it may not be true]' Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:50
  • @DanBron sorry, this is supposed to answer you question but turned out an answer and I don't know how to delete it.
    – Amandaaa
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 5:26
  • Click on the link below the answer that says delete but using the same user account. You should then regain the lost reputation points.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 7:30
  • I edited your "answer", why didn't you say that the example sentence was used in a dictionary?! Anyway, if you still want to delete this post it's very easy, click on the link which says delete. But I think this really belongs in your question because it shows that you did do some sort of research. Some users have cast their votes to close your post because it showed no research. Well... you can demonstrably show that you did.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 8:02

Using "literally" to mean "I really really really mean it a lot" is uneducated and unhelpful. This increasingly popular misuse means we're losing yet another perfectly good word that will no longer have useful meaning to offer.

It's like some radical feminists using "rape" to describe everything from actual coerced sex to a lustful look. "It's literally the same as rape". If we let them get away with using "rape" to describe everything, it will describe nothing, and we'll no longer have a word to describe the horror and harm of actual coerced sex.

Obviously languages evolve, but evolution should give us a richer language, not a poorer one, and the growing use of "literally" to mean its opposite, which means it means nothing, literally impoverishes us.


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