Literally, too big a fuss about nothing – the latest English Today interactive feature

The sixth installment in the Bridging the Unbridgeable series of interactive features was published in the June 2015 issue of the English Today journal. In this feature, we ask readers to contribute to investigating the issue of the non-literal, intensifier use of literally, one of the most common pet usage peeves nowadays.

Examples such as I’ll literally turn your world upside down, where literally is used to emphasise a metaphorical or hyperbolic expression are seen as problematic by many, and are the subject of numerous articles, memes, and running jokes in popular sitcoms, such as Archer and Parks and Recreation.

Despite proscriptions against its use, the intensifier literally is becoming more and more common and it is increasingly difficult to dismiss the occurrence of such instances merely as language abuse. An important factor in this process of language change, as noted by Claridge, may be the affective component in the intensifier use of literally.

Once we go beyond the proscriptive comments on literally, and focus on the language change aspects of this use, a host of other questions gain relevance, not only because literally is an interesting case semantically, but also because it is prescriptively targeted. Have attitudes to this usage changed under the influence of its increased use? Do speakers associate this usage with particular styles of speech or groups of people? To investigate these and related questions further, I created a short survey included in the English Today feature. Make sure to read the text, available both through the English Today website and on our blog), and let us have your thoughts on the subject!

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