I try to be pretty understanding of nonstandard English. I try to look at English from a linguistic point of view. After all, language is always changing. There is no “right” direction for language to evolve any more than there is a “right” way for the wind to blow.
And grammar nazis like myself have about the same amount of control over other people’s language use as we do over the wind.
But some things really bug me. One of those things is the use of “literally,” when the correct word is “figuratively.” That’s really not a grammar issue, but a vocabulary issue, so it fits in with the language theme.
I might be talking to someone who is telling me about something that happened that was really funny. Then she says, “I laughed so hard I literally died.”
Really? You died? Then how are we having this conversation? Are you a ghost? Are you haunting me? If you tell me something literally blew your mind, I will look around on the floor for pieces of your brain.
So you see, this error in word choice makes me go into full grammar nazi mode.
“Literally” means “the actual meaning of the words.” So, if you are “literally” dying, I should call an ambulance. The correct word to use is “figuratively.” “Figuratively” means that something is a figure of speech, like “dying from laughter.” You’re not really dying; you’re just laughing really hard.
Another great example is, when wishing someone good luck on a performance, you might say to them, “break a leg.” You don’t really (or literally) want that person to break a leg (not if you like them, anyway); you want them to perform well.
We use figures of speech all the time:
- I nearly hit the roof
- It’s on the tip of my tongue
- Cat got your tongue?
- I’m starving (are you really in imminent danger of dying from hunger?)
- You’re on fire!
- You’re on thin ice
- I’m barely keeping my head above water
And that’s just a few off the top of my head.
In the case of “literally died” and similar usage, “literally” is being used for emphasis rather than what the word actually means, much like using “really” or “a lot.”
This watering down of vocabulary happens all the time, like how “terrible” used to mean something truly horrifying, whereas now it can mean anything as minor as not being able to find a parking spot easily.
Still, even though it’s natural and inevitable, it makes me feel kind of sad. I feel like our language has lost some of its richness and ability to express the complex and the sublime.
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