Grammar Sabotage in Broad Daylight? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Sabotage in Broad Daylight?

If you like being punched in the gut, type the word literally into Google, everyone’s favorite internet search engine. Here is what you’ll find:

1. in a literal manner or sense; exactly. “the driver took it literally when asked to go straight across the traffic circle”
2. INFORMAL used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.

If you’re like most sticklers, definition 2 just ruined your day. When literally can mean “not literally true,” aren’t we living an Orwellian nightmare? Even with Google’s fairly recent addition of “INFORMAL,” it remains that definition 2 dilutes the power of literally to near uselessness.

Since when is Google qualified to redefine words? A closer look reveals that Google’s self-appointed experts don’t even know the basics of capitalization or punctuation. For instance, why no capital T for “the driver…”?

In addition to a capital letter at the beginning, a complete sentence requires a period at the end. Keep in mind that in America, periods never go outside quotation marks, and Google is an American company. Is Google punting on this one because they don’t know where the period should be placed at the end of definition 1?

Look at the wording of definition 2: “Used for emphasis …” Does this strike you as a bit coy? Note the passive voice, which allows Google to duck the key question: “Used” by whom? Well, you hear it (ab)used a lot by education-challenged 18- to 49-year-olds who clearly have not bothered to learn what the word means. That’s why they say things like, “She literally threw me under the bus” and “I’m literally freezing to death.”

This is the very demographic that produced Google’s founders, and most of its employees. These literally-torturers are the people who make the company profitable. So Google “gives back” by legitimizing its best customers’ sabotage of this powerful word. For Google, showing solidarity with its contemporaries—even to the point of endorsing their ignorance—is a savvy business decision.

And it’s no comfort that many dictionaries acknowledge the figurative side of literally. You literally will never catch us language watchdogs using it that way.

Today’s article is updated from the original version by our late writer-editor Tom Stern, first posted on August 24, 2013.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

28 responses to “Sabotage in Broad Daylight?”

  1. Linda S. says:

    My favorite mental image inspired by the misuse of “literally” is a commercial for insurance.

    A woman says with a big smile, “When I saw the rates, I literally fell out of my chair.”

    Oh, how I wish they had filmed it that way. I would literally fall out of my chair, laughing.

  2. Meg D. says:

    With your strong feelings about the mis-use of the word “literally,” I thought you might enjoy this (it’s a comedy sketch titled Captain Literally): .

  3. A.R. says:

    Google does not define words – have a look at and note the comment there about Google.

  4. Connie A. says:

    Awesome editorial.
    Thank you.

  5. Gordon H. says:

    Heard on NPR: “that’s literally a slippery slope.” I want to know where it is so I can go skiing on it.

  6. Lyrysa S. says:

    re: Literally
    Please see Merriam Webster recent article on “literally.” It has been in the dictionary in both senses since 1909.

    • Merriam-Webster is by its own philosophy descriptive (they describe the language people are using), not prescriptive. American Heritage is a prescriptive dictionary, with a usage panel of scholars, and it would not acknowledge the corruption of “literally” without a brief essay explaining this decision. (Don’t expect American Heritage to do this anytime soon.)

  7. Jane L. says:

    Believe me, it will only get worse with each generation. My mother was a teacher in the Depression era, and at age 90 she decried the lack of knowledge of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and pronunciation among those who are the reporters, editors, and talking heads—all of whom are now arbiters of the English language.

    But, I’m an editor . . . and a diehard: I will not succumb to the practices that are rampant in print, radio, and television today.

    Thank you for your stance on this subject.

  8. M.J. F. says:

    Oh, dear… that’s discouraging! We corresponded about just this a couple of months ago, and I hate to see it “legitimized” by Google.

    But wait… M-W says the same thing! I am really upset about those guys! Google may not know better, but the descendants of Noah Webster s/b ashamed!

    Definition of LITERALLY
    : in a literal sense or manner : actually
    : in effect : virtually
    See literally defined for English-language learners »
    See literally defined for kids »
    Usage Discussion of LITERALLY
    Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

    I don’t buy their hyperbole excuse, either!


  9. Mel Hughes says:

    I do hate seeing “literally” used in the supposedly informal sense. When someone says, “…and I just literally DIED,” I have this urge to ask them how the heck they were talking to me, since most dead people have the courtesy not to talk to people.

    But then I suppose this is like a “nonfiction novel,” which is also a classic “WHAT THE…” statement, and yet, it’s out there.

    Life is scary sometimes. Literally.

  10. Brenda Russell says:

    Oops! While it is normally the case that “in America, periods never go outside quotation marks”, this is NOT ALWAYS factual. True, these are exceptions; equally true, these exceptions occur rarely. However, for the sake of literal correctness (I mean that literally!), I would suggest reducing the use of ALWAYS or NEVER – simply because there are (almost) always exceptions. And yes, I pick nits professionally. Always. (That comma outside the quotation marks? Just proving a point.)

  11. Grandmom24 says:

    Thank you, GrammarBook!

  12. Mister Misterr says:

    Yes! Sock it to them! I enjoyed reading this update of the August 24, 2013, column.

  13. Jacqueline Hegarty says:

    Thank you for this great article! I have many pet peeves about language these days and this is one of them. The punctuation thing you mentioned is another one. And the Oxford comma! But perhaps at the top of the list is the nearly global misuse of “I” and “me” in subjective case when it should be objective case! It is my opinion that these grammar snafus have been perpetuated by Millennials! Yes, you’re right, the 18- to 49-year-olds! Except for my own kids (in their early 40s) because they were homeschooled and I taught them correct grammar and usage!

    • On occasion, we might exaggerate for effect and emphasis. While we may have called out the 18-to-49-year-olds, every age group has grown up with linguistic idiosyncrasies not always accepted by others. As just one example, the current older generation grew up with the admonition to never end a sentence with a preposition, which is essentially a myth.

      Thank you for your comments. Our comma rules support using the Oxford comma, and we agree about the misuse of I and me. We have devoted several articles to this topic, including I vs. Me and I vs. Me (Review).

  14. C Carroll says:

    I love this post and completely agree!

  15. Jeremy says:

    The “informal” use of literally has its roots in irony. Having a separate definition when sarcasm or other forms of irony are being used is pointless.

  16. Marshall Worthington says:

    This is – literally – commendable.

    Not literally yours,

  17. Janice H. says:

    Thank you for striking blows for clear and precise uses of our language.

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