JS Tip 492: Literally Literally

From the Writing and Speaking Workshops: Using Literally Literally

The Problem: On Wednesday (last Wednesday, September 5th, two days ago), a well-known television host responded to a statement by a guest: 

“Literally, [their] heads are going to explode at what you just said.” 


No, no, no, no, no

At no time will the offended individuals’ heads explode. Boom. Blow up. Burst. Fly apart. (Ugh. The image is violent and unpleasant.)  

Literally means actually. Really. Truly. 

And their heads aren’t actually going to explode.

Their heads may figurativelyexplode—they may shake their heads, they may grow angry, they may sputter and be at a loss for words—but their heads aren’t going to literally explode. 

A woeful and mistaken use of the word. 

The misuse is nothing new: The American Heritage Dictionary cites a 1926 example: “The 300,000 Unionists . . . will be literally thrown to the wolves.” Ouch.   

A Suggestion: Don’t use the word. It’s overused. It’s lost its meaning. It lends little to your writing and speaking.    

If you have questions, suggestions, or arguments, let us know. We love this stuff.   

Mark Brooks