Monday, June 14, 2010

Literally Gave the Shirt off Her Back

A few months ago, the instructors at my school received an email about a professor (from a different campus) who had been put on administrative leave as a result of her Facebook comment: “Had a good day today, didn’t want to kill even one student. :-) Now Friday was a different story…”

Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I think she was just exaggerating; I don’t think she literally wanted to kill her students.

Even if she wrote, “Now Friday was literally a different story…” we still couldn’t be sure if she really meant it.


We don’t only use literally when we mean it in the literal sense- “without exaggeration or inaccuracy”- we also use literally to exaggerate a point.

For example, it’s common to say, “I literally almost died laughing” or “I was so scared that I literally peed my pants.”

But, this is what it means to “literally” pee one’s pants:

When we use literally in conjunction with phrases like "peed my pants," in most cases, we aren’t suggesting that, like Fergie, we actually peed our pants; we are simply trying to emphasize how scared we were.

Using literally in this way- to emphasize rather than in the literal sense- is one of the most common grammar pet peeves people have. And they have a point: If Fergie said, “I was so nervous during my concert, I literally peed my pants,” we would probably incorrectly assume that she was exaggerating.

But, although using literally to emphasize irritates a lot of people, like wearing leggings as pants irritates me, there’s no actual law against it.

In fact, says:

"Since the early 20th century, LITERALLY has been widely used as an intensifier meaning ‘in effect, virtually,’ a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration…The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of LITERALLY irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of LITERALLY in its earlier sense ‘actually.’” also defines leggings as "close-fitting knit pants," but, as I suspected, it says nothing about having to wear them underneath anything.

You win this round, Lohan.

Well...if you can call this winning:


Bethany Elizabeth said...

hehe! Great post - it does bother me a lot. Especially since I love it when things really do happen 'literally.' Things that you wouldn't think actually happen. And then it's like - "Really? That's so cool!" "I didn't mean like for real, stupid." "But you said..." "You thought I ate a piece of pizza that was actually the size of Texas?" "But you said..."
And then life gets messy. *sigh*
Although I will admit that I myself have made this mistake quite a few times. Ah well. :)

Rick said...

Haha, good one. Can I still be irritated when non-British pronounce it "litrally"?
That drives me so crazy I literally just peed my leggings.

Theresa Milstein said...

If I were a famous singer and had to pee, my needs would take precedence over my art. And when leggings were popular in the 1980s, at least we had the decency to wear the largest, most shapeless shirts over them.

I know someone who uses (or should I say "overuses") literally for everything. If it's used for everything, it doesn't punctuate anything. She should read your enlightening post.

Kimberly Franklin said...

I can't believe she really peed her pants. That's crazy! But yes, I always notice the "literally" used often. :)

Wendy Ramer said...

Great post. I have to say, though, that I feel sorry for that professor who was put on leave. I appreciate her humor and can even see myself having that thought. Now I can learn from her errant way and literally avoid a similar situation. (just had to use it, sorry)

Palindrome said...

Ugh, leggings as pants. That's literally unattractive.

j.m. neeb said...

I literally have no idea how to use this word. ;)

Do "leggings as pants" work for dudes? If so, I might have to look into that. I think I have the legs to pull it off!

Wendy Ramer said...

J.M.~ No, no, no! Leggings only work for "dudes" who are playing the part of a 1980s teenage girl. Please, no. Literally! ;-)

Talli Roland said...

That's such a disgusting photo of Fergie. Bluck. I literally almost threw up.