Content Marketing Nuances: “Literally” and Auto-antonyms

When it comes to the English language, there are two primary schools of thought. Prescriptivists generally agree that our language should be arbitrated – that rules about spelling, punctuation, grammar, mechanics, and usage should be both established and followed. Descriptivists take a different approach: rather than setting up laws governing the use of language and attempting to enforce them, they prefer to simply observe and report on the ways that language is used. While that may seem a little bit academic, quality content marketing has to take into account the needs, goals, and image of a brand, which means choosing a writing style (and, by extension, an approach to using language) that attends to those elements.

Of course, disagreements about the use of language arise even within an organization full of people who have the same concept of a business’ needs, goals, and image. Individual speakers and writers have a tendency to embrace their inner prescriptivist and latch on to specific pet peeves: ending sentences in a preposition, splitting infinitives, using “whom” indiscriminately (even when it’s the subject of a relative clause), or inappropriately using “literally” in a sentence, which seems to be an increasingly popular point of contention among writers, editors, and amateurs alike.

But “literally,” like so many English words, isn’t quite as literal as its morphology suggests.

“Literally” is an adverb that, of course, means “in a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.” This definition, and the fact that the word “literal” is literally spelled out within the word, is what gives rise to the well-intentioned aversion to liberally using “literally” in more figurative ways, like when people say they “literally saw the most amazing movie ever” or that there were “literally a million people in line waiting for tickets.” Perhaps you’ve heard that someone “literally wrote the book on the subject” or that they “literally can’t even.” In almost every case, these things can’t actually be true, and using “literally” when you don’t mean something “in a literal, exact, or actual sense” on your website, in your marketing materials, or even in your professional communications can be off-putting or even outright misleading.

Just because it’s wrong for your brand doesn’t mean that using “literally” in a more casual way is patently wrong, though. The Oxford English Dictionary lists another definition for “literally” and suggests that it is “used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense… (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely.’” The OED also adds that this is “now one of the most common uses” even though it “reverses the original sense of literally.” So although you may think using “literally” figuratively is literally the worst thing ever, its metaphorical meaning is not only in common circulation today, but has been for quite some time. Alexander Pope, an incredibly famous writer, explained that “every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same,” which is hardly a literal use of “literally” (or “exactly” for that matter). That was in 1708.

Regardless of when “literally” took on its second, figurative meaning, English words are notorious for having multiple definitions or even meaning two entirely opposite things. There exists in English an entire category of words called auto-antonyms – words that mean the opposite of themselves. “Sanction” can mean to allow something or to penalize someone for doing it. “Oversight” can mean that something has been carefully watched over, or it can be something, usually a mistake, that has gone completely unnoticed. This is perhaps why oversight committees are so often ineffectual – their members run around in circles wondering if they need to oversee or overlook, and things don’t get any clearer when those oversight committees are sanctioned: some think they’ve been given a green light to continue while others think they’ve been reprimanded.

Even a simple word like “left” can be confusing: if a person has left, he or she is gone, but if he or she is left, that person is still there; thus, it’s important to seek clarification if you ask about your boss and someone tells you “he’s left” or “she’s left” since what you say next could put you in hot water or cause you to skate on thin ice – two seemingly contradictory things that, coincidentally, have exactly the same meaning. Maybe they’re synonymous opposites?

While some may see this ambiguity as a problem, it is an essential and beautiful part of the English language. 

Modern English has been built from and enriched by dozens upon dozens of other languages. Words are encountered, are adopted, and then branch off and grow into new words with new definitions and associations. “Littera,” the Latin root of “literally,” is the same root word that gave us “literature,” “letter,” and “literary.” That the word “literally” has taken such a literary turn should come as no surprise once you get to know its word family. In fact, “literally” is more of an outlier – the stubborn sibling who obstinately refuses to join everyone else in a lighthearted game of pretend.

Originally, that Latin root word “littera” just meant “letter of the alphabet.” And ultimately, letters and words are building blocks for communication; they are the tools that we use to convey meanings and impressions. Whether you’re hastily sending an informal text or carefully crafting the mission statement for your organization, words have an impact, and choosing the right ones becomes ever more important as English continues to proliferate across platforms and adapt to new media.

In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope also wrote that “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring: / There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again.” Whether you have been a figurative “literally” user or not, the next time you’re around the water cooler and someone is having “literally the worst day ever,” you can at least smile with the understanding that they are moving our language in a new direction, which is what English has been doing for centuries upon centuries despite our best efforts to reign it in. In fact, you might now be able to school the pretentious grammarian who tries to correct the word’s “misuse” – and that would literally put me over the moon.

Chip Lafleur

Chip is an entrepreneur, organizational leader, and marketing expert who combines experience in web development, marketing tactics, strategy, and team leadership with a strong ability to harness talent and hone complex concepts into concrete deliverables.