Almost everyone I know either loves or hates grammar. Either you think it’s a bunch of boring, picky rules that teachers use to annoy their students, or you think it is an essential part of The Way Things Should Be Done. Linguists usually fall into the first category, since they use the way native speakers actually talk as guidelines for determining what is grammatical. So for instance, if native speakers end their sentences with prepositions, that’s OK, even though grammar rules say that prepositions are bad words to end sentences with. (Yes, I phrased it that way intentionally.) But in spite of all my linguistics classes, I have one grammar-related pet peeve that nothing has shaken.
That pet peeve is misuse of the word “literally.” “Literally” is the opposite of “figuratively,” so it means without exaggeration or figurative language. This means that if something is literally a hundred feet tall, you can measure it and it will be that height. If this is literally the best blog post ever, as the title says, then no blog post ever written is better than it. If someone literally turns the world upside down, that would mean they have changed the way the planet Earth rotates, and so on.
However, most people use the word “literally” to intensify some figurative language they’re using. Much to my dismay, I even found this second usage in some online dictionaries! However, I feel I must dispute with the dictionaries on this.
Why do I feel so strongly about this word? What could motivate me to argue about language with a dictionary? The reason is that if we use “literally” to describe things that are not literally true, then the word has no meaning. If “literally” can mean either without figurative language or with figurative language, then in a given sentence containing the word, one must figure out from context which type is being used. Most people are capable of doing that, but they could do just as well if the word “literally” were taken out of the sentence. Thus, the word itself has no meaning. Moreover, there is no other word that means “literally,” so if “literally” loses its meaning then English has no way of expressing that idea.
The other problem is that this makes it hard for me to know how to respond when someone asks me whether I take the Bible literally. The fact is, even the staunchest Fundamentalist does not take everything in the Bible literally. Throughout history, people have debated whether Jesus was God and even whether he was human. But no one has ever argued that he was a young sheep, a fruit-bearing plant or a piece of wood with hinges. If one takes the Bible literally, Jesus would have to be all those things, because the Bible calls him the Lamb of God, the vine and the door.
On the other hand, most people who ask whether I take the Bible literally don’t mean to ask whether I think Jesus was a plant. They mean to ask whether I think the events and ideas recorded in the Bible are true. The answer to that is a resounding “yes!”
You see, it’s possible to believe that everything the Bible affirms is true while acknowledging that it sometimes uses figurative language to make a point. And just because something is figurative or symbolic doesn’t mean it isn’t true.