Literally Figurative

Karin Cather - Editorial Services

By Karin Cather

Editor & Ghostwriter

Published September 4, 2016

A common task for editors is to make sure that the manuscript in front of them conforms to the rules of English spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation. For instance, when I encounter the confusion of you and I and you and me, I fix it. (You and I are going to the parking lot because, between you and me, it’s time that Joey learned how to drive.) Even a descriptivist editor probably would edit writings that confused the two.[1] Of course, some editing is a matter of judgment. Just because you can change something doesn’t mean you should.[2] And what’s appropriate in a journal article would be impossible in some fiction.

But some people think that some usage breaks the rules even though that usage has been in place for centuries. For example, people have turned their attention to the word literally, recently. That is, people are pretty upset that literally is being used to mean figuratively. So when peeververein overhear a person in line at a nice restaurant say “I’m literally starving” and their last meal was probably lunch, peeververein grow literally incensed because a well-nourished suburbanite waiting to claim their dinner reservation isn’t really starving. In fact, the speaker was using hyperbole. Like someone might say “He’s late, again. I’m going to kill him” when they aren’t a Mafia hit man and they’re just irked. Or, “I can’t stand it when I hear people say literally when they mean figuratively!” Oh? They can’t? With all the tragedy in the world, this is the hill they want their endurance to die on?

As John McIntyre put it:

It is perfectly reasonable to avoid the hyperbolic literally in much writing; it’s a colloquial use more common in speech. (I don’t use it myself.) But it is nonsense to claim that the people speaking that way are destroying the English language. That sense has been in the language since the eighteenth century, and English is still here.

How do you handle this? Since people have been using literally as a source of hyperbole for hundreds of years, this usage has not sprung fully formed from Facebook comments—even those alleging that the moon landing is a hoax. Besides, look what happened to sanction!

In fact, language is just one long free-association. I don’t know about you, but I was surprised to find out that conscience, consciousness, and shit and shed are all related:

Old English scitan, from Proto-Germanic *skit- (source also of North Frisian skitj, Dutch schijten, German scheissen), from PIE *skei- “to cut, split, divide, separate” (see shed (v.)). The notion is of “separation” from the body (compare Latin excrementum, from excernere “to separate,” Old English scearn “dung, muck,” from scieran “to cut, shear;” see sharn). It is thus a cousin to science and conscience.

If we brought some people back from 3500 B.C.E. who spoke Proto-Indo-European, would they go postal because *skei has turned into conscience, conscious, shed, and shit?[3] So if a word can end up literally going to shit, why are we surprised when literally can become a source of metaphor?


[1] Of course they would.

[2] I’ll be glad to discuss that in the comments.

[3] Of course some of them would. As a bonus, here is the etymology of the word fuck.

You May Also Like…

Will AI Replace Human Writers?

Will AI Replace Human Writers?

Well, people are certainly trying. Some people don’t want to do the hard work of creating, and other people don’t want to pay a human being if they can give a prompt to a glorified calculator.


  1. susanedits

    Even though I’ve known for years that “literally” has always been used as a generic intensifier, it still drives me nuts. But it doesn’t literally drive me nuts, because I don’t even know what that would look like.

    I’m one of the descriptivist editors who’ll remove literalies unless they’re used humorously (“That haircut is literally the worst thing ever”) or in dialogue. My reason/excuse: we strike other unnecessary intensifiers (“very angry” = “angry”), so why not this one?

    Pet peeves, taken as a whole, tend not to be governed by logic.

    • Karin Cather

      That’s a great point, Susan. On the other hand, I’ve deleted whole paragraphs in a structural or developmental edit that were perfectly grammatical and which would make peeververein do happy backflips, but appeared in pretty much the same form several times in the manuscript.

      Serious question: Do you think that literally or very should always go?

      • susanedits

        “Very”: no, not always. “Literally” (assuming the not-literal usage): I cannot be objective about this. I’d say yes, but I can’t back it up with ironclad reasoning when I’m happy to let “I could care less” go.

        • Karin Cather

          I wouldn’t always delete anything. But I’d be more likely to delete the very. I wonder why that is.

  2. Michael LaRocca

    If someone tells me that his head literally exploded, I’ll still wonder how he’s speaking without one. Or why I haven’t noticed its absence. I mean, a headless person? Wow.

    • Karin Cather

      Headless people are a lot easier to sit behind in a movie theater. Because they no longer block your view.

      Okay that was gross. But I just read someone say that their eyes shot across the room. And they didn’t literally do anything. And we think everyone has to stop moving when a contact lens pops out!

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This