Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 124: Literally? Actually, yes

This week, we're looking at the use of literally as an intensifier. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, literally means “in a literal way or sense.” The dictionary goes on to define literal as “the most usual or basic sense of the word.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Current English also tells us that the word literally is used to add emphasis—and in those cases, the word is not intended to be taken literally. Fowler's Modern English Usage calls this secondary use of literally a weakened sense of the word. The Associated Press Stylebook also advises against using literallythis way.

The weakened sense of literally doesn't sit well with Andrew Haeg, either. Haeg is an editor for Public Insight Journalism at American Public Media, and he joins us on Grammar Grater this week.

Haeg describes some misplaced uses of literally that resulted in confusion or inadvertent humor. Evidently the misapplication of literally is so common, Haeg discovered a Web site that tracks abuse of the word literally.

To prevent us from misapplying the word, Haeg leaves us with some tips—and a handy sentence—to assist in avoiding the abuse of literally.

Listen to the complete interview

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield; Associated Press Stylebook

Music from this episode: "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'" by The Velvelettes; "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks

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