Copy Editor’s Corner | A Blog Post on Literally

Copy Editor’s Corner | A Blog Post on Literally

It’s literally the worst thing to ever happen to the English language.

Merriam-Webster added a second definition under its literally entry, recognizing that the original — a synonym for “actually” — is no longer the only definition, and certainly not the only accepted one. Now, when someone means figuratively, they can use literally. And point to the dictionary for evidence that they’re not wrong.

According to Merriam-Webster, “Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”

While it’s no longer officially frowned upon to use literally in a sentence like “The sky is literally falling”— and Merriam-Webster points out that even literary greats James Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, and Mark Twain used literally in this way—the dictionary still advises against it for the average user.

When Charles Dickens used the phrase “he literally feasted his eyes,” the dictionary says, he was using hyperbole, a legitimate literary device. “But remember that hyperbole requires care and handling and that your audience may not recognize it for what it is.”

So there you have it. Proceed at your own risk.

Alison Dotson