Last month, Neil Gaiman tweeted about his love of the word literally. He said that it’s the only word we have that “means both ‘actually’ and ‘I am speaking about something that definitely didn’t happen.’”
I think the reason why I take pleasure in the many meanings of “literally”, is there are lots of words that mean “actually” but only one that means both “actually” and “I am speaking about something that definitely didn’t happen”. And that’s literally delightful for this author.
— Nails Ghoulman (@neilhimself) September 18, 2018
Of course, this brought out the prescriptivists who argue that use of literally as an intensifier is “stupid” or “wrong.”
So is Neil Gaiman wrong? Should you reserve literally exclusively for meaning actually?
To answer that, let’s start with dictionaries.
The first definition for literally in most dictionaries relates to actuality or factuality. These definitions often use terms like “exact” and “without metaphor.” This definition is the one everyone agrees on.
But most dictionaries also include the intensifying or metaphoric use of literally. Mirriam-Webster and Google include it as literally’s second definition. Canadian Oxford Dictionary includes it under the entry for literal. The Oxford English Dictionary includes it as well, along with examples of its use in this capacity going back as far as 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” from Frances Brook’s The History of Emily Montague.)
While “every modern dictionary,” according to the Mirriam-Webster blog, includes this secondary meaning, many include notes or guides regarding its use.
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary classifies this second usage as “informal disputed” and has a usage note that recommends avoiding this use in writing or formal speech. This note states that hyperbolic usage is “often wordy.”
Mirriam-Webster states the second meaning of literal “is common and not at all new.” However, it also says that many consider this use “illogical.” It suggests that context usually provides emphasis already (implying that literally is unnecessary).
Google just notes that the second usage is informal. And Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is “often considered irregular in standard English.”
Many style guides include recommendations as well.
The Chicago Manual of Style says “it should not be used loosely in figurative senses” and “wherever guides have accepted this usage, they should be disregarded.”
The Associated Press Style Guide says “literally means in an exact sense. Do not use it figuratively.”
The Canadian Style has literally under its list of “words commonly misused or confused.” Here, the guide says that “literally means really, actually.” And that using it to mean the opposite (as it does in its metaphoric/intensifying use), is wrong or nonsensical.
Other style and usage guides, no doubt, have similar recommendations (if they have a usage note for literally, that is—The BuzzFeed Style Guide doesn’t appear to address it at the time I’m writing this).
Should You Use It?
If you’re following a style guide, you should take into account what yours says. Of course, guides are indeed just guides, not hard and fast rules.
In essence, using literal and literally as intensifiers should depend on your audience.
As many style guides say, it’s best to avoid using literally as an intensifier in formal writing. If you have an audience of new English speakers, then you might want to avoid it as well. This is simply for clarity’s sake.
In informal settings or creative writing, however, context will often be enough for readers to understand your meaning. If a character says they “literally can’t stand waiting in line,” readers probably won’t expect them to collapse when they approach the grocery check-out.
Still, ambiguity isn’t unheard of. If you use literally for emphasis, but you don’t pair it with something that is obviously not-literal, you can leave readers unsure. For example, “there were literally hundreds of people at the party.” This sentence could mean that there were indeed hundreds of people there. Or it could mean that there were just a lot of people there and the speaker isn’t sure how many.
Similarly, if you pair it with something that sounds untrue that is true, you risk misinterpretation. To take an example from my life, “cold weather literally gives me hives.” This seems unlikely to be true, and most would interpret it as an exaggeration of my dislike for the weather. But in my case, it is actually true (it’s called cold urticaria, for those curious).
So, my advice is to use literally as an intensifier on a case-by-case basis. Evaluate your audience, the context, and the potential for misunderstanding. If your audience expects figurative or hyperbolic language and the context makes your meaning clear, go ahead and use it.
Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, and James Joyce have all used literally as an intensifier, so you’ll be in good company.