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Literally a new perspective

13 replies

DadDadDad · 18/03/2022 16:12

I suspect some pedants won't agree with the following (including @ClariceQuiff and that voice of reason, @Gasp0deTheW0nderD0g ), but I take precision and clarity in language seriously so please hear me out. (And you're welcome to point out all the grammar mistakes I'm bound to make below... Smile ).

What do you make of these two sentences?

(A) I really have been shut inside the house all week.

(B) I really could murder a hamburger.

I'd guess in (A) that "really" is meaning "this is the absolute truth". If they'd just said "I've been shut inside the house all week" and they'd popped out once to post a letter then I wouldn't feel they had lied to me. But with "really" in there I assume that they had not once gone beyond the walls of their house. "Really" = "non-figuratively" (indicating unambiguous physical truth)

In (B), "really" just emphasises the speaker's strong feelings. I am not puzzling over how the speaker is planning the homicide of an inanimate item of food. "Really" = intensifier ("in the strongest sense" / "without doubt")

Many insist that "literally" can only be used in the sense of "non-figuratively" and mock its use as an intensifier. But, if someone said "I literally could murder a hamburger", do we really have a problem wondering if they are using it as an intensifier, or seriously think they will take a hamburger and shoot it through the heart? Why do we reject such usage for "literally" but often accept the same usage for "really", "actually", "totally", "absolutely" in informal conversation?

Here's the problem: using "literally" as an intensifier is common among English speakers...

he had literally feasted his eyes upon the culprit

he literally glowed - a new well-being radiated from him

Literally, I was the apple of his eye

Those are quotes from Charles Dickens, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlotte Bronte respectively. I could add examples from Joyce, Nabokov, Thackeray, Hardy and Pope.

So, yes, fellow pedants, I will continue to amuse myself when "literally" is used as an intensifier but I interpret it as "non-figuratively" and play with the image that conjures ("hmm, Dickens, his eyes had little mouths on them and starting munching on the culprit? eugh!"). However, I'm not going to make a fuss about it and I will enjoy finding genuine usage to see what difference the word "literally" makes - I might collect them on this thread.

I'd be intrigued to see if we can find any examples of "literally" where it is ambiguous whether they meant "non-figuratively" or as an intensifier. (I think Gasp0de played with this ambiguity on another Pedants thread when she recently wrote This literally drives me insane Grin ).

Having written the above, I found this interesting article which has more on these points:

OP posts:
ClariceQuiff · 18/03/2022 17:32

Interesting post, DadDadDad.

I think there is a difference between 'literally' (traditional usage) and 'really' in that 'really' can also mean 'thoroughly' - e.g. 'you've done a really good job' or 'I'm really bored'. Perhaps it would be fair to say that the meaning of 'literally' is beginning to follow the same pattern as 'really'.

if someone said "I literally could murder a hamburger", do we really have a problem wondering if they are using it as an intensifier, or seriously think they will take a hamburger and shoot it through the heart?

My objection to 'literally' as an intensifier is based more on the dilution of its meaning. We already have many perfectly good intensifiers - what's the point in adding 'literally' to these? It doesn't enrich our language for it evolve to in this way.

I think there are examples where the meaning could be confused:

'I was literally sick when I saw it'
'I literally went into shock'

If it becomes accepted as an intensifier then we will have to use more words to make it clear that we do mean an action was literal - our sentences will become less streamlined.

I also increasingly hear 'literally' used where neither its literal meaning or its meaning as an intensifier is required. I heard this at work earlier in the week:

'I literally phoned them on Wednesday.'

What purpose does that 'literally' serve? There is no reason to suppose the meaning of this sentence could be anything other than literal, and it doesn't require an intensifier. 'Literally' is in danger of becoming an affectation.

ClariceQuiff · 18/03/2022 17:34

it evolve to in this way ^

Muphry's law rears its head but I'm sure you got my drift.

DadDadDad · 18/03/2022 19:21

Thanks, Clarice , for your thoughtful comments.

I've always been sceptical of the pedants' alarm at "dilution" of the language and dumbing down. I think articulate people will always find ways (and even invent new ways) to express their thoughts.

It's only in our generation I think that all parts of society have had access to the ability to daily put their thoughts in writing for potentially millions to see them. So, we are far more aware of some people's poor grammar and spelling, but I'm not sure that means it's getting worse. (When I see errors in professional writing, eg newspaper websites, that's when I do get irritated).

I literally phoned them on Wednesday

This is an interesting one and I definitely think the word "literally" is doing something in that sentence.

"The boss just asked if you had phoned Browns to chase that order"
"I phoned them on Wednesday" - tone could be just a statement of fact.

"I literally phoned them on Wednesday" - now I'm picking up some exasperation - "why is the boss asking me to chase an order, when it's actually the case that I only phoned two days ago and it's obvious nothing is going to change that quickly?".

I'll accept it's a more dubious use than "I literally phoned them five minutes ago" to distinguish from a vague "it's only been five minutes" which could be a more figurative sense of "I phoned them quite recently". But I guess once you start using it for "five minutes ago", then it trips off the tongue to apply to it "Wednesday" if one is feeling annoyance at the short time that has elapsed.

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ClariceQuiff · 18/03/2022 19:41

Yes, I agree 'I phoned them literally five minutes ago' would be a valid use, as 'five minutes' is an accepted expression meaning 'a much shorter interval than you'd expect.'

Interesting that you pick up on exasperation - I agree, 'literally' as intensifier seems to be associated with that particular emotion.

I've always been sceptical of the pedants' alarm at "dilution" of the language and dumbing down. I think articulate people will always find ways (and even invent new ways) to express their thoughts.

I don't think dilution and dumbing down are necessarily synonymous. I see dilution as meaning we lose useful nuance, with the consequence that we might have to use five words to say what might once have been said in a single word.

What is annoying is that many of these mistakes are people trying to sound clever and impressive - such as misused reflexive pronouns being so common in corporate-speak. I think this might be responsible for the popularity of 'literally' - it's more 'impressive-sounding' than other intensifiers.

I stand by my point that if 'literally' becomes just another intensifier, we will have lost a useful word.

DadDadDad · 18/03/2022 19:51

And I stand by my point that it's been used as an intensifier for centuries and we don't have any difficulty inferring in which sense that someone is using it (well, no more difficulty than we generally have understanding each other).

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DadDadDad · 19/03/2022 21:50

A couple for my collection of real examples spotted on MN (all from this year):


There are literally no words to describe the disgust I felt on reading your post.

Intensifier - can't be "non-figuratively" given they have just used some words to describe their disgust!

Does "literally" add much? Probably not - might have been better to have said "utter disgust" if wanted to show how strong it was.


(On topic of smaller portions being served to women in restaurants). I've literally never experienced this in any restaurant ever.

"non-figuratively" / "without any exaggeration" - emphasising that they are confident that it has not happened once in all the times they've been to a restaurant.

Does "literally" add much? Maybe shows that the speaker has taken a bit of care to check their memory.

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ClariceQuiff · 19/03/2022 22:32

I agree with your analysis of those two uses. The first one might stand as an interesting example of a linguistic paradox but other than that, the 'literally' adds nothing.

The second one, yes, I'd give benefit of the doubt that the poster wanted to emphasise it genuinely hadn't ever happened to her, rather than it having happened rarely.

DadDadDad · 20/03/2022 08:40

Thanks, I'm having fun with this, even if the rest of Pedants' Corner is ignoring us!

Two more:


(Where a boyfriend had chosen an option that the OP was unhappy about even though it was an option the OP had indeed offered them). It was literally your idea.

"non-figuratively" / "genuinely"

Does "literally" add much? I guess it underscores the "your" in that sentence.


(About giving crisps and screentime to a young child) This is literally my entire parenting philosophy.

Intensifier - probably; it's hard to imagine that a parent has limited the principles that guide their parenting to purely policies about crisps and screentime. Grin

Does "literally" add much? I think it helps to give the comment a slightly humorous, sympathetic tone.

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ClariceQuiff · 20/03/2022 10:38

Grin Yes, not sure why this thread is being so severely left alone!

It was literally your idea

Again, we are seeing 'literally' used to convey exasperation. If I'd been having that conversation, I'd have replaced 'literally' with emphasis on the 'your'. Or, if I'd been particularly angry, I might have gone for an expletive between 'your' and 'idea'.

This is literally my entire parenting philosophy.

I agree, this one is an exaggeration to convey humour. It's similar to describing a bad holiday experience by saying 'the children did nothing but eat crisps and play on their tablets all week'. Of course this isn't literally true - the children would have slept, bathed and completed a few other activities, but it conveys far less frustration if you phrase it 'the children did little else but eat crisps and play on their tablets all week.'

Here is an interesting one:

Your comments about OP are ignorant (in the literal sense), nasty and uncalled for

The poster obviously means the person she's talking about lacks knowledge (the literal meaning of 'ignorant') but then goes on to say the comments were 'nasty and uncalled for' which is akin to the increasingly-popular figurative use of 'ignorant'. It would be rather neat to phrase this as 'Your comments about the OP are ignorant in both the literal and figurative sense'.

DadDadDad · 20/03/2022 13:09

Thanks, Clarice. "ignorant (in the literal sense)" - I might have puzzled over what other sense "ignorant" might have, so that's an interesting insight.

Unfortunately, every time I read your username I hear it in Hannibal Lecter's voice from Silence of the Lambs. Grin

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ClariceQuiff · 20/03/2022 17:51

Ah, I haven't seen Silence of the Lambs since it first came out in the early 1990s, so I've forgotten most of it. My name was just intended as a lighthearted tribute to Clarice Cliffe, whose ceramics I admire. I hope I haven't given you nightmares!

ClariceQuiff · 20/03/2022 17:52

'Cliff' not 'Cliffe'!

DadDadDad · 20/03/2022 20:08

A nice one to finish before I sign off for the weekend...


Three lovely contrasting examples on the same thread (about a surprise finding of a hair grip when the OP doesn't use them):

Well at least one person on MN has literally got a grip today

"non-figuratively" - used in its purest sense - and nice pun!


They literally get everywhere!

Intensifier - it's obviously an exaggeration (there are no grips on the ceiling, in the cornflakes etc)


There are literally hundreds of Kirby grips around my house from the girl who lived here before.

*"non-figuratively" / "without exaggeration" - I think, because hundreds sounds a lot but could be possible.


And this why I am not grumpy about the different uses of "literally" - because I see people using it creatively and playfully, to communicate and connect.

OP posts:
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