Stan Carey recently made one of those posts he does every once in a while that makes the rest of us grammar bloggers look like sputtering nimrods. I’m assuming that a substantial number of our readers overlap, but in case you haven’t seen his post, or haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (as I hadn’t for a while), let me strongly suggest that you go check it out.
The post is about non-literal literally, one of the most commonly cited signs of the linguistic apocalypse predicted by the grammar devotionals. But, as Stan shows, it’s far more complicated and interesting than that. Non-literal literally isn’t new (Ben Zimmer found it in the 1760s), and it isn’t restricted to the uneducated (Stan offers examples from Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others).
I’m going to quote out a few especially interesting parts of Stan’s post, but again, you really ought to read the whole thing. First, on the motivation for using non-literal literally:
Part of the problem, I think, is that people keenly want to stress the uniqueness, legitimacy, and intensity of their experiences. Guilty of little but enthusiasm and rhetorical casualness – not evil, or stupidity, necessarily – they resort to bombast and hyperbole.
On the fact that this path is hardly unique to literally:
The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the contradictory use of literally “does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself . . . but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive”. As such, it is following a familiar path taken by words like absolutely, totally, really, and even very, which originally meant something like true, real, or genuine.
Here’s his take-home message:
Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it.
I’m with Stan. Honestly — and this may shock some of you who’ve been operating under the misapprehension that just because I don’t like prescriptivism that I am unable to distinguish better usage from worse — I don’t care for non-literal literally. I can’t find any examples of me using it in writing, and if I use it in speech, I believe I do so sparingly. My primary objection is that it strikes me as a poor word for the task; if you regularly can’t find a better way to intensify a statement than cheap hyperbole, you’re not a very effective writer. To get on a soapbox a moment, I find the overuse of hyperbole to be one of the most annoying stylistic shortcomings of contemporary writing, especially in Internet communication. This is a personal peeve about writing, so I don’t expect everyone to fall in line behind me on it, but it explains my personal dislike of non-literal literally.
The objection that non-literal literally conflicts with the primary meaning of the word is of secondary concern to me. This conflict is generally minor. It’s rare that one is honestly unsure whether or not the user literally did something, especially in speech, where intonation can clearly indicate the use of exaggeration. Furthermore, as commenter “Flesh-eating Dragon” puts it, “there are degrees of literality; it is not binary.” That makes it hard to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable usages of literally; should we, for instance, ban literally when it doesn’t adhere to its literal meaning of “to the letter”?
Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.