This question

"Literally" and "Decimate" misuse

addresses the misuse of the word "literally" to mean its opposite. I am curious as to how prevalent is such misuse. My hunch is that we are all so attuned to spotting incorrect usages that we over-estimate the frequency of misuse and overstate the threat of the word literally losing its meaning.

How I might go about calculating the ratio of correct usage to incorrect usage?

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    I wouldn't bother. 'Literally' has been used to mean ‘virtually, as good as; completely, utterly, absolutely’ for over 200 years. – Barrie England Sep 12 '12 at 20:13
  • Not Constructive. If OP wants to publicise his "incorrect usage" position (peevish and pedantic imho), let him post an answer or comment on the original question. – FumbleFingers Sep 12 '12 at 20:21
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    Literally all the time. – SevenSidedDie Sep 12 '12 at 20:24
  • I suspect that calculating the ratio in any way other than manually would be very difficult, if not impossible. Consider the two sentences, "He was literally seven feet tall," and "He was literally ten feet tall." Other than knowing how tall people usually are, there is no way to disambiguate the intended meaning of the word "literally". So, to find the answer, you would probably just have to go to something like the COCA, find the instances of "literally", tag the usages, and compare the numbers in each group. – Cameron Sep 12 '12 at 20:38
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    Kevin, I voted to close as 'off topic', not as 'not constructive', since the question is more about how to do English research (you obviously already understand the nuances of the usage). When voting to close, I recommended that it be moved to the meta site, where I think people could give you some better insight on how to answer this question. I disagree with the 'not constructive' voters here (though I can see the rationale, given that the question would be so hard to answer). – Cameron Sep 13 '12 at 17:12

Calculating with text is not too difficult if the patterns you care about have small sets of predetermined examples. For example you can compare how common the phrase 'first come first served' is in relation to 'first come first serve' in Google NGrams, because you are looking for exact text.

A semantic question, like testing for metaphorical usage can be difficult because the possibilities are open ended. For the word 'literally' what are the possible words around it that would signify that it is being used figuratively (rather than literally)? I'm sure we could come up with something, but we'd never really know what we haven't thought of that might be contexts implying figurative usage.

  • I'm provisionally accepting this answer but it has given me some ideas as to how I might answer the question for myself by sampling. I hope to be back with a better answer. – Kevin Lawrence Sep 12 '12 at 21:30

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