The word literally means that something actually happened. However, too often, people use literally as an intensifier, effectively meaning figuratively—quite opposite of the original meaning.
Consider, “He literally turned blue.”
We don’t interpret this as a man becoming Smurf-like or joining The Blue Man Group, but more likely that he was having great difficulty breathing or was quite envious (blue with envy, to be cliché).
In a strict sense, this is a misuse of the word. Unfortunately, so many people have misused literally for so long that dictionaries are beginning to reflect this misuse as now being acceptable.
This can result in confusion. For example, “He literally fell on the floor laughing.” Did this actually happen? I suppose it’s possible. More likely, he merely laughed really hard. But we can’t be sure.
As writers, we need to ensure our words are clear. So how should we use literally? Do we cling to tradition or follow the trend? I suggest we do neither, that the best response is to stop using literally. (Which is unfortunate, since I use it often—and always “correctly.”)
If we use it only in the traditional sense, some people will be unsure if our words are actual or hyperbole. Yet, if we embrace the new meaning, purists will decry our work as sloppy.
The best solution is to avoid it, literally.
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Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.