Literally (style)

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There is a common form of exaggeration in the use of the adverb literally. It is a fault in formal English style, and should be avoided by those writing British academic English, where words should be used precisely. The word literally is, wrongly, used as an intensifier, without any regard to its meaning. "I ran the Marathon," I heard someone say. "It was tough. I literally died." This cannot be true. No person literally dead can speak. One might say (but no one does) "I was figuratively dead".

Paradoxically, however, the adverb literally is often used to mean figuratively: "And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell" (Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, 1960). If you think that 'to scour' means to scrub, or to wash thoroughly, the image produced by Nabokov's sentence is disgusting; but he was using the word in a figurative sense, and there are two verbs 'to scour' in OED. The older means "To move about hastily or energetically; esp. to range about in search of something, or in movements against a foe", and it is this about which OED says "fig. To run over in the mind, with the eye, etc."

See also Literal - figurative.