Do you misuse the word ‘literally’?

The word literally is constantly used and abused. Learn how it happened and why, maybe, that’s not such a bad thing.

There are those who misuse the word “literally,” and those who don’t—or so they think.

Sports announcers are among the most egregious perpetrators. “If you cross him he’ll literally rip your face off,” an ESPN radio personality once remarked. They seemingly cannot grasp the silliness of their statements.

Meanwhile, the people eschewing misuse are peevish about this manhandling of the English language.

“ ‘Literally’ has been so overused as a sort of vague intensifier that it is in danger of losing its literal meaning,” offered the Web site Common Errors in English. “It should be used to distinguish between a figurative and a literal meaning of a phrase. It should not be used as a synonym for ‘actually’ or ‘really.’ ”

And then, somewhere in between, are the grammarians that understand its definition, but defend other people’s right to abuse “literally”—even do it themselves. Why? Because they have a dirty secret, a sort of Da Vinci Code for grammarians that might rattle your world.

Grammar’s Da Vinci Code

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