By education and career choice, I am a moderate prescriptivist (with descriptivist sympathies).* In my personal communication, I carefully “couldn’t care less” and I enjoy the game of keeping fewer and less in distinct count and non-count realms. In my professional life, I edit or query any nonstandard usage. It’s part of what my clients pay me to do. So I was surprised to realize that I had, for the first time, used literally to describe something that wasn’t literal — and that I was okay with it.
I used the non-literal meaning of literally in a comment to a writer this week while I was editing. And I don't regret it. Please finish reading before you come to revoke my professional-editor card.
The comment, explaining a proposed addition to an article, went something like this: “I don’t usually put words in writer’s mouths, but I can literally hear you saying this [and it improves the intro to the article].” The writer was nowhere near me at the time; I couldn’t literally hear him say something he hadn’t literally said. But he is a personal friend of mine, someone whose speaking voice I know well, and someone who speaks and writes to a general audience in a very accessible way. My literally expressed how strong the impression of his voice was when I made the addition. It was used, as it so often is these days, for emphasis.**
Formality is a sliding scale. That is true whether we're talking about the tone of writing, of speaking, or of relationships. And that whole scale is available for appropriate application not just for writers but also for editors. I had a strong impression of the writer’s voice when said I literally heard it. I also had a good command of the register of the article and of this particular author-editor relationship.
That’s important. I would not drop a non-literal literally into a comment in an academic manuscript being published by a university press. I would not suggest that someone put it in their own writing. I generally agree with editor Bill Walsh when he says, “With an entire language at your disposal, you could probably find a better way to emphasize that you’re exaggerating than reaching for the one word that most precisely means ‘I am not exaggerating.’”
But in the full-scale register of communication, there is a place for non-literal literally. I wouldn't have previously guessed that the first place I would find for it would be in my professional communication. But in the context of this comment to this writer, I can’t bring my moderately prescriptivist self to regret the usage. Non-literal literally fit the register. It slipped out naturally and was understood clearly.
And clear communication is literally what editing is about.
*If you’re interested in further examination of the prescriptivist and descriptivist labels, Copyediting’s own Erin Brenner and Mark Allen have great posts to get you started: “The Great Prescriptivism-Descriptivism Debate: A Primer” and “Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist Is a Battle of Straw Men.”
**If you’d like to read more about this non-literal literally business, Stan Carey has an excellent article on Sentence First that is full of citations to other excellent articles on the matter: “Literally Centuries of Non-Literal Literally.”