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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Why I object to the non-literal "literally"

Or put it this way, I don't like it and don't use it. When I say/ write "literally", I mean "literally". 
This post is more or less a response to http://allthingslinguistic.com/post/63045405129/non-literal-literally-doesnt-literally-mean 

1st of all, it should be noted that I'm not a prescriptivist, at least I don't consider myself one, and in many cases (in English as well as in Vietnamese) I'm rather against prescriptivism.
However, I don't like the non-literal "literally". 
1 reason is that it's overused (this guy has the same view: http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/non-literal-literally-isnt-wrong-that-said/). The word "literally" used as an intensifier has become so common that it's now platitudinous, trite, boring.
Another reason is that once in a while I'm not sure if a statement is meant to be literal or figurative. 
And most importantly, if the non-literal use of "literally" is so widespread, which word should one use when one means "literally"? To know with certainty whether or not something is a hyperbole isn't simple as it sounds- there can be statements that sound very much like exaggerations but which are totally true. 
Eg: 
- "He laughed so hard he died. Literally." 
Doesn't happen often, but a fit of laughter can now and then cause a cardiac arrest or asphyxiation and then death, so one may die from laughter. 
- "She literally looked at her own reflection every 3 minutes." 
"3 minutes" sounds like an exaggeration of "very, very often", but this is true. It happened once, when I was on a métro and there was a girl sitting opposite me, who every 3-4 minutes took out her phone to see her face and fix her hair, continually for about half an hour all the way since I sat down on that seat till I got off in front of my university. I have no idea why she did that, but this is not a hyperbole. 
- "She literally peed her pants!" 
Hasn't happened to me, no, but I've heard Jennifer Lawrence did that once when she was startled.
I should think of more examples, better ones, but you get the general idea. Now, with such statements, I must say "non-figuratively" or "no hyperbole" or "not an exaggeration" or "no, I mean literally, literally literally" or "it sounds like a hyperbole but it isn't"? It's as irritating as the fact that one can no longer say "I like twilight" without specifying that one means "the soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon, caused by the reflection of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere" or "the period of the evening when twilight is visible, between daylight and darkness" (OED), not the book series by Stephenie Meyer (I know, bad analogy, but, you know...). 

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