Definition of literally
1 : in a literal sense or manner: such asa : in a way that uses the ordinary or primary meaning of a term or expression He took the remark literally. a word that can be used both literally and figurativelyb —used to emphasize the truth and accuracy of a statement or description The party was attended by literally hundreds of people.c : with exact equivalence : with the meaning of each individual word given exactly The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French.d : in a completely accurate way a story that is basically true even if not literally true
2 : in effect : virtually —used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins
Should literally be used for emphasis?
Sense 2 is common and not at all new but has been frequently criticized as an illogical misuse. It is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
Examples of literally in a Sentence
… make the whole scene literally glow with the fires of his imagination. —Alfred Kazin, Harper's, December 1968
Even Muff did not miss our periods of companionship, because about that time she grew up and started having literally millions of kittens. —Jean Stafford, Bad Characters, 1954
Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry … than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. —James Joyce, Dubliners, 1914
… yet the wretch, absorbed in his victuals, and naturally of an unutterable dullness, did not make a single remark during dinner, whereas I literally blazed with wit. —William Makepeace Thackeray, Punch, 30 Oct. 1847
Many words can be used both literally and figuratively.
He took her comments literally.
He's a sailor who knows his ropes, literally and figuratively.
The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French.
The story he told was basically true, even if it wasn't literally true.
Seen and Heard
What made you want to look up literally? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).