I had a dear friend (you know who you are!) ask about using literally. It seems this word is used interchangeably with figuratively–so you might find yourself saying literally all the time without knowing its–well–literal meaning! The more you use this word, the more likely you’re using it incorrectly. Make sure you read on to see what this word actually means!
So what’s wrong here?
So here’s the problem. Nowadays, people use literally as an “intensifier,” meaning they use it in the same way they would use “awesome!” “Incredible!” “Spectacular!” “AMAZING!” (I think you get the point.) So here’s an example of using literally incorrectly: “My mom like, literally KICKED me out of the house” (emphasis for the valley girl in me). This is wrong. Unless your mom stood you next to the door, opened it, and kicked your butt through that doorway and out of the house, she didn’t literally do it. It needs to actually happen for it to be literal.
But it’s fine in an academic paper, right?
It’s become very common to talk like this in conversation (I must admit, I’m guilty as well). However, the problem starts to come in play when you’re writing an academic paper (or even a business piece) and the “intensifier” form of literally starts sneaking up on you. “The protagonist literally screamed at her mother, illustrating a form of insubordination in the parent/child bond.” I make this sound like a smart, academic sentence, but it’s not. First of all, ask yourself, “Can a character literally do anything?” If it’s a novel, then the answer is definitely no! A character can’t DO anything. It’s words on a page. And while theorists can argue until they’re blue in the face–at the end of the day, as far as literally is concerned, these people don’t exist.
So you’ve been saying when it’s WRONG, but when is it RIGHT?
The easiest way to know how to use it correctly is to know when it’s wrong. Literally is one of those words you almost never need to ACTUALLY use, so when you DO use it, it’s probably wrong. Think about it. In the examples I gave above, you can take literally out and it’ll still make sense. Why even use the word if you don’t need it?
The place TO use it is when you have a figure of speech that is actually true. For example, “I was literally pulling my hair because of this post.” For those of you who are unaware, “pulling my hair (out)” is a phrase commonly used to indicate stress over a particular thing. We place the literally here to indicate that this commonly “figurative” form of speech has now become literal.
Literally is a tough word to use. You may think you’re using it correctly, but if you’re using it frequently, you should stop and ask yourself: “Am I trying to show that this thing is actually happening? Is this a ‘figure of speech’ that I’m working with? Is this word even necessary?” Once you are in the habit of using literally as an “intensifier” it’s very hard to get out of–to try to avoid it in the first place. Good luck!