Literally isn’t just an overused word. It’s a word that is frequently used incorrectly, sometimes used redundantly and rarely used appropriately.

Literally simply means that what is being stated is the actual truth: no similes, metaphors, poetic license or hyperbole whatsoever. Literally is the antonym of figuratively.

A mummified skeleton saying "my throat is literally as dry as a bone."

To avoid this fate, drink plenty of water and don’t die while walking across a desert, a peat bog, a salt mine or an arctic glacier.

In common misusage, people say “literally” for emphasis. When Fred the ex-boyfriend says, “Don’t date her. She will literally tear out your heart, as she did mine,” Fred really means, “She will hurt your feelings so deeply, you will feel emotional pain that is figuratively equivalent to having your heart torn from your body. She’s not worth it, Bro.” If Fred were correctly using “literally” in this instance, he’d be impressively chatty for a guy with a gaping chest wound.

“Literally” also gets tossed around to no great effect in more prosaic ways. When Fred says, “After she finally told me she loved me, she broke up with me literally three days later,” he means, “She broke up me with three days later.” No need for “literally” there. Three days is a bummer, but totally conceivable.

The only reason to use “literally” is when an event that sounds figurative is actually happening. This is highly unlikely and almost always awful.

  • That movie was so scary, I literally pooped my pants. I’m so sorry about your couch. Please get me a towel.
  • I’m starving. I could literally eat that horse, though not the hooves, mane, hide or organs. And I come from a culture that doesn’t eat horses, so if there’s another way to alleviate my extreme hunger, let’s go with that.
  • My throat is literally as dry as a bone, because I’m a talking, desiccated mummy.

DO get out of the habit of using the word “literally.”

DON’T watch movies that are so scary you could poop yourself.

DO watch this funny video about “literally” abuse.

Need help writing or editing for your website or blog? Call Kim Landry at 484-829-0021 or email [email protected].

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