Why it’s Okay to Use ‘Literally’ Figuratively

‘I haven’t eaten anything all day,’ says Graham. ‘I’m literally starving.’

He shouldn’t have said it.

‘Actually,’ Nancy begins, head held high. ‘You’re figuratively starving’.

Graham sighs. Here comes the lecture.

‘You ate this morning, Graham. You can’t literally be starving. I wish people would use literally and figuratively correctly. It isn’t very difficult! The English language is a decaying mess thanks to people like you and their careless abuse of words…’

Does Graham and Nancy’s argument seem familiar? You’re not alone.

I can’t recall how many times I’ve overheard it. I enjoy a well-crafted sentence, and abhor poor grammar. But this particular ‘rule’ of the English language has never sat well with me. It is pretentious pedantry.

It is frustrating because we are all well aware that words change meaning depending on their context. In poor Graham’s case, literally is an example of a little thing called hyperbole. This is basically a linguistic term for exaggeration.

If one were to say ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,’ never is it assumed to be a literal declaration. Instead, it is an exaggeration of the truth – hyperbole. And the same goes for Graham’s declaration: ‘I’m literally starving.’ It isn’t a grammatical error, it’s merely a hyperbolic statement designed to convey that one is really, really hungry.

The Oxford dictionary dictates the word’s contextual meaning:

  1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly.
  2. Used for emphasis while not being literally true.

It should also be noted that the meaning of words change over time based on their usage –semantic shift. ‘Gay’ is probably the most well-known and notable example of this.

And for those of you still not convinced, or who believe in the sanctity of language, you’ll be surprised to find that dozens of famous, literary authors have used literally in a figurative sense: Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many more.

Check mate, grammar Nazis.

-James-

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