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Thread: Literally

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    Default Literally

    "LITERALLY" - how can we use it in different ways

    I am not so clear about its meaning and often get confused.

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    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Literally

    Unfortunately, some natives have the same problem, resulting in absurd sentences like

    I was literally stampeded to death!

    when what they actually mean is

    I was almost/virtually stampeded to death!

    The correct use of 'literally' is to indicate that an expression normally understood with a figurative/metaphorical sense is instead being used with its original (i.e. literal) meaning. Take, for example, the expression 'to be buried in one's work', generally taken to mean 'completely absorbed by one's work and unable to think about anything else'. Now just suppose that a set of shelves containing a professor's own research papers were to collapse on top of him and cover him completely, we might say that he was 'literally buried in his work'!

    Clearly, this adverb is to be used with great caution and is likely to be inapplicable in the vast majority of cases where it is actually used.
    Last edited by philo2009; 08-Aug-2009 at 03:52.

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    Default Re: Literally

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Unfortuanately, some natives have the same problem, resulting in absurd sentences like

    I was literally stampeded to death!

    when what they actually mean is

    I was almost/virtually stampeded to death!

    The correct use of 'literally' is to indicate that an expression normally understood with a figurative/metaphorical sense is instead being used with its original (i.e. literal) meaning. Take, for example, the expression 'to be buried in one's work', generally taken to mean 'completely absorbed by one's work and unable to think about anything else'. Now just suppose that a set of shelves containing a professor's own research papers were to collapse on top of him and cover him completely, we might say that he was 'literally buried in his work'!

    Clearly, this adverb is to be used with great caution and is likely to be inapplicable in the vast majority of cases where it is actually used.
    Hi Philo,

    That's a great answer to this question. Therefore, I think this usage note would be helpful as well. Oftentimes, people misuse this word as you've pointed out.

    literally: Definition from Answers.com

    USAGE NOTE For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of “in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.” In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example “The 300,000 Unionists … will be literally thrown to the wolves.” The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself—if it did, the word would long since have come to mean “virtually” or “figuratively”—but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.

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    Soup is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: Literally

    For those interested, here's a great read: Michael Israel (2002). Literally Speaking, Journal of Pragmatics. 34:44, 423-432.

    Abstract

    Modern uses of the word literally are surveyed, and the solecistic misuse of this word as an expression of speaker commitment is shown to be a natural semantic extension of the word’s basic metalinguistic meaning. The development appears to be typical of a large class of intensifiers, though it is argued that literally itself is only in the early stages of such an evolution. Aspects of this development are observed to run counter to well-known tendencies for meaning change to involve subjectification, and it is suggested that subjectification itself may be a special case of the ways in which originally pragmatic meanings can become conventionalized properties of a form’s lexical semantics.


    There's a draft of his article here.

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    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Literally

    Quote Originally Posted by Soup View Post
    For those interested, here's a great read: .
    Yes, I think that 'solecistic misuse' is the key phrase to bear in mind here!

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    Exclamation Re: Literally

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Yes, I think that 'solecistic misuse' is the key phrase to bear in mind here!
    I, for one, wholeheartedly agree.




    “The 300,000 Unionists … will be literally thrown to the wolves.”


    This usage of the word "literally" is figuratively not my bowl of soup. Or could it literally be not my bowl of soup? I think not

    José can you see by the border on the Rio Grande!
    What so proudly we sail, for it's a job that we're leaving.
    For we wade through deep waters in the perilous night.
    Our homes from which we depart, we'll always carry in our heart.
    Last edited by PROESL; 08-Aug-2009 at 04:32. Reason: typos

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    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Literally

    Absolutely.

    And you don't need to be a college professor to realize that, if the word 'literally' is allowed simply to degenerate into yet another synonym of 'almost' (of which we already have an ample abundance), then we will simply have to invent, or comandeer, another word for those occasions on which we literally do mean 'literally' - rather pointless, when we already had a perfectly good word in the first place!

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    Default Re: Literally

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Absolutely.

    And you don't need to be a college professor to realize that, if the word 'literally' is allowed simply to degenerate into yet another synonym of 'almost' (of which we already have an ample abundance), then we will simply have to invent, or comandeer, another word for those occasions on which we literally do mean 'literally' - rather pointless, when we already had a perfectly good word in the first place!
    Yep, I agree once again. Whenever I hear "literally" used in this fashion, it does strike me as rather odd. Of course, when people do this, they literally do not really know what they're saying.
    Last edited by PROESL; 08-Aug-2009 at 04:41.

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    Default Re: Literally

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Absolutely.

    And you don't need to be a college professor to realize that, if the word 'literally' is allowed simply to degenerate into yet another synonym of 'almost' (of which we already have an ample abundance), then we will simply have to invent, or comandeer, another word for those occasions on which we literally do mean 'literally' - rather pointless, when we already had a perfectly good word in the first place!

    Ooh! Let it degenerate! I've never commandeered a word before. You! That's right you! Get over here. We're giving you a new usage, and we may even change your meaning altogether. And this word will be ... literally ... shaking in its boots. "No, not me! Not me!" Or is that not I?
    Last edited by PROESL; 08-Aug-2009 at 04:48. Reason: spelling error

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    Default Re: Literally

    Quote Originally Posted by PROESL View Post
    Ooh! Let it degenerate! I've never commandeered a word before. You! That's right you! Get over here. We're giving you a new usage, and we may even change your meaning altogether. And this word will be ... literally ... shaking in its boots. "No, not me! Not me!" Or is that not I?
    Who would like to ... literally ... commandeer a word?

    Come on! Let's see some hands! Who's in on it?

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