1. In a literal manner; word for word: translated the Greek passage literally.
2. In a literal or strict sense: Don't take my remarks literally.
3. Usage Problem
a. Really; actually: "There are people in the world who literally do not know how to boil water" (Craig Claiborne).
b. Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.
Usage Note: For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherence 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 deplored the example "The 300,000 Unionists ... will be literally thrown to the wolves." The practice reflects a tendency to use certain adverbs, like completely and unbelievably, as general intensifiers, without calling to mind the primary sense of the adjective from which the adverb is made. In this regard, literally is very similar to the adverb really, whose intensive use often has nothing to do with what is "real," as in They really dropped the ball in marketing that product. · With regard to literally, the Usage Panel supports the traditional view. In our 2004 survey, only 23 percent of the Panel accepted the following sentence, in which literally undercuts the sentence's central metaphor: The situation was especially grim in England where industrialism was literally swallowing the country's youth. The Panel mustered more enthusiasm for the use of literally with a dead metaphor, which functions as a set phrase and evokes no image for most people. Some 37 percent accepted He was literally out of his mind with worry. But when there is no metaphor at all, a substantial majority of the Panel was willing to allow literally to be used as an intensifier; 66 percent accepted the sentence They had literally no help from the government on the project.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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