On Behalf of “Literally”

You either are a “literally” abuser or know of one. If you’re anything like me, hearing the word “literally” used incorrectly causes a little piece of your soul to whither and die. Of course I do not mean that literally, I mean that figuratively. An abuser would have said: “Every time a person uses that word, a piece of my soul literally withers and dies.” Which is terribly, horribly wrong.

For whatever bizarre reason, people feel the need to use literally as a sort of verbal crutch. They use it to emphasize a point, which is silly, because they’re already using an analogy or a metaphor to illustrate said point. For example: “Ugh, I literally tore the house apart looking for my remote control!” No, you literally did not tear apart your house, because it’s still standing. If you’d just told me you “tore your house apart” searching for your remote, I would’ve understood what you meant. No need to add “literally” to the sentence.

Maybe I should define literally. Literally means actually. When you say something literally happened, you’re describing the scene or situation as it actually happened. So you should only use literally when you mean it. Example: “That was so funny I literally cried.” This is possible. Some things are so funny they make you cry. Note that I stopped with literally cried. You cannot, for example, say you literally cried your eyes out. That would mean that whatever it was was so funny your eyes fell out of your head.

When in Doubt, Leave it Out

“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” illustrates the point that you’re hungry. You don’t need to say “I’m so hungry I could literally eat a horse.” Because you can’t do that in one sitting, I don’t care how big your stomach is.

“That play was so funny I laughed my head off,” illustrates that the play was funny. You don’t need to say you literally laughed your head off, because then your head would be on the ground and you wouldn’t be able to speak, much less laugh.

“I drove so fast my car was flying,” is pretty fast, and we get your point: you were speeding. But your car is never going fast enough to fly, so don’t say your car was literally flying.


Perhaps the reason so many people abuse the word literally, stems from a problem in early childhood. Maybe no one believed a story you told, and you felt the need to prove that it actually happened. In efforts to prove truth, you used literally to describe something real, however outlandish it seemed. Whatever the reason, now your overuse of literally has become a habit.

Hard Habit to Break?

I have friends who abuse literally. Abusing literally isn’t as bad a smoking, but it’s still an unhealthy habit (I mean that figuratively). Help is required in order to break this habit.

This is my version of an intervention for literally abusers. I’m not sure how else to do it other than put it in writing. I know this makes me sound like a know-it-all, and I accept that. But there’s no excuse other than blatant ignorance to misuse the word “literally.” So just stop it.

Don’t say “Courtney, this post is so snobbish it literally burned up my computer.” Because nothing is that snobbish that it causes computers to burn up. Or: “Courtney, your head is so big it literally cannot get through the door.” Because it can, unless it’s one of those tiny doors from Alice in Wonderland, and I need to eat something to make my whole body smaller.

No One’s Perfect

And I’m not saying I am. What I’m trying to do is restore meaning to a word that’s lost meaning. I’m standing up for literally. It’s a good word when used correctly. People are butchering it and destroying it every day (figuratively speaking) and the massacre needs to stop. Just as there’s a coalition of people against the use of certain fonts (like Comic Sans and Papyrus), so should there be a coalition of people against the abuse of literally.

Saying it to Irritate?

Do you misuse the word “literally” just to annoy your know-it-all or grammar royalty friends/acquaintances/total strangers? If so, why? Doing so would be like me going outside when it’s freezing, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and t-shirt, in hopes of making you cold by just looking at me. Who suffers more?

Graphical Representation

Matthew Inman of “The Oatmeal” wrote a comic about literally. Abusers and defenders alike should check it out. It’s clear this whole craze about literally is driving a lot of us nuts. You literally abusers are killing off pieces of our souls. You must be stopped, or the world will be lost to meaninglessness forever. Figuratively speaking.

What are some of the worst examples of literally abuse you’ve heard? Do you have suggestions for how to stop the literally abusers of the world? I’d love to hear some tips, so I can stay sane.


  1. Jaye November 20, 2011 at 10:31 am

    This “literally” had me snickering at my laptop. But can I put in a plea for “unique?” A thing can’t be “very unique” or “rather unique” or “almost unique” – its either one of a kind, or it isn’t one. How many times have you seen items advertised in a catalog with an adjective in front of “unique?”

    1. Courtney November 21, 2011 at 11:15 am

      Huh, I never noticed, but now I’m sure it will nut me up! You’re right, of course. Something is either unique, or it isn’t. There cannot be variations of uniqueness, can there? A good point! Perhaps you should campaign on behalf of “unique.” Good words should not be butchered by the masses.

      1. Mark November 29, 2011 at 8:30 pm

        Ugh, the one that gets me going is the non-word, “Irrigardless”
        Real, live, edjimicated people use it. literally makes my ears bleed…. in a sort of unique way.