Just stop! If you think you need to use it, you are probably wrong. The incorrect use of the word “literally” has become an epidemic. It keeps getting worse. I seem to hear it every day. I have started keeping track each time I hear it. It is 11:30 am and I have heard it 4 times today! I listen to a couple of radio programs, and I know one of the guys I listen to uses it a lot. I know that biases my sample, but I still hear it from others as well.
The site www.dictionary.com has 4 definitions. One of which is “actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy.” However, the 4th definition contradicts this and says “very nearly; virtually.” But a note does mention the controversial misuse of the word.
Basically, the word is meant only to indicate that what you have said is not to be taken as a metaphor or exaggeration. There are 2 ways in which the word is misused.
1: It is incorrect to say “literally” as part of what is actually meant to be a metaphor or exaggeration. Here are some misuses I have heard.
“My jaw literally hit the floor.” If that is so, you need to go to the hospital.
“I literally died laughing.” Really? You had a heart attack and died? I know it’s possible, so I have to believe it.
“The media is literally on the war path.” No, they are not literally picking up weapons and marching to a fight.
The whole point of exaggeration is to emphasize the magnitude of the situation. A metaphor is meant to help us understand something in a colorful way. Using “literally” as a modifier is not just unnecessary, it is also incorrect.
2: The use of “literally” to add emphasis when none is needed. Here are some real examples I have heard.
“You literally can’t not like the guy.” No, I’m sure it is possible that someone can not like him.
“I literally have no idea.” Oh, I’m glad you clarified that, because if you were to simply say “I have no idea” I wouldn't have believed you.
This use of the word might technically be correct, in the sense that the statement is true. But adding “literally” doesn't make it any more true. This is not the intended use of the word.
The word is meant to tell the listener or reader that the statement is to be taken at face value. It should be used only if there is a possibility that the listener might mistake what you have said to be an exaggeration. This does not mean, however, that you can merely use the word because you really want the person to believe you. The person will believe you, don’t worry. But if you do want to add emphasis, choose a correct word, such as “really” or “very.” Let’s work some examples.
“That was literally the first concert I ever went to.” This is a type 2 misuse. It might be true that it was your first concert, but using “literally” does not add anything. There is no reasonable expectation that I wouldn't believe you. Even if you wanted to add emphasis, a correct way might be: “That was really the first concert I ever went to.”
“The amusement park is literally in my back yard.” The person meant that the park was close to his house, not literally, actually on his property.
Let’s say a man is proposing to his fiancé. Maybe he tries to jump over a bench but he trips and falls. You might then legitimately say, “He literally fell head over heels in love. “
If you were attending a boring lecture or speech and you fell asleep, you could then say, “The speech literally put me to sleep.”
Simply try to avoid using the word. Do not use it to emphasize your point. When those rare instances when it is appropriate come up, you will know. If you aren't sure if it is appropriate then chances are that it is not.