Literally speaking

Here’s a cover letter cited in a column about what not to write when applying for a job:

“I am currently being micromanaged, and it’s literally killing me.”

Probably not. The letter-writer is uncomfortable, certainly, but unless the end of the writer’s life is nigh, there is no “literal” killing going on.

Yet there are “literally” thousands of references in Nexis to people saying things they did not “literally” mean.

Dictionaries generally agree that the use of “literally” in a nonliteral sense is not proper English. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one favored by many journalists, says one definition of “literally” is “word for word; not imaginatively, figuratively, or freely: to translate a passage literally.” But it also says a second sense, “actually; in fact,” is “now often used as an intensive to modify a word or phrase that itself is being used figuratively [she literally flew into the room]: this latter usage is objected to by some.”

“Literally” is one of those words that have gained popularity in an OMG-driven world, where exaggeration reigns. In proper usage, only if puppies and kittens fell from the heavens could one say that “it literally rained cats and dogs.” Sticklers will wag a finger and say, “The word you want is figuratively.”

But if someone is taking “literary” license and ramping up the emotion, as did the job-seeker, making it “figurative” doesn’t work: “I am currently being micromanaged, and it’s figuratively killing me.” No one talks that way.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is more forgiving about the virtual use of “literally,” saying that though it is “frequently criticized as a misuse,” it is instead “pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.” Garner’s Modern American Usage puts use of “literally” for “figuratively” at Stage 3 of the Language-Change Index, “widespread but …”

The “misuse” of “literally” is a hot-button issue for some people, in the realm of serial commas and split infinitives. There are other options, especially because “literally” is “literally” being overused.

The job-seeker would probably be better off saying “it’s virtually killing me,” or “in effect,” “practically,” “all but,” or anything that takes a less “literal” view. Especially if the “literal” sense is comically implausible—as in “we literally laughed our heads off”—you’d be better off humoring the sticklers. After all, they’re still “literally” correct.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,