In its standard use literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense’, for example

I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn’t expect him to take it literally.

In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in

They bought the car and literally ran it into the ground.

This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (‘we were literally killing ourselves laughing’) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.


Read more about the use of literally on our blog.

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Grammar and usage